Brittney Griner, a seven-time WNBA All-Star, two-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year, and American citizen, was convicted of smuggling drugs into Russia.
On Thursday, she received a nine-year prison sentence after marijuana vape cartridges were found in her luggage.
Her case has raised concerns she has become a political pawn in Russia’s war against Ukraine.
Judge Anna Sotnikova of the Khimki city court sentenced Griner to 9 years in a Russian prison and fined her 1 million rubles, or about $16,400.
She claimed to have considered Griner’s partial admission of guilt, remorse for the deed, state of health, and charitable activities when handing down the prison sentence.
Prosecutors wanted her to be sentenced to 9.5 years in jail.
Why Was Griner in Russia?
Griner plays internationally in the off-season, which is common among WNBA players.
She was among the dozen-plus playing in Russia or Ukraine.
Griner is the only one who hasn’t returned home.
Griner’s Russian team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, has five WNBA All-Stars on its current roster, including Griner, reigning WNBA MVP Jonquel Jones, Breanna Stewart, Allie Quigley, and Courtney Vandersloot.
Griner Admitted To Making An Honest Mistake
Before the verdict, Griner gave an emotional speech where she apologized for the accident and asked for leniency.
“I never meant to hurt anybody, I never meant to put in jeopardy the Russian population, I never meant to break any laws here,” Griner said.
“I made an honest mistake, and I hope that in your ruling that it doesn’t end my life here. I know everybody keeps talking about political pawns and politics, but I hope that that is far from this courtroom.”
“I want to say again that I had no intent on breaking any Russian laws. I had no intent. I did not conspire or plan to commit this crime,” she added.
Griner’s Sentence Comes Amid Tense US-Russia Relations
The ruling was decided with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a backdrop.
The U.S. State Department defends Griner, believing is wrongfully detained.
Charge d’Affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Russia, Elizabeth Rood, said the sentence was a “miscarriage of justice,” and U.S. President Joe Biden said Griner’s lengthy sentence was “unacceptable.”
Lawyers Will Appeal The Unreasonable Verdict
Griner’s lawyers, Alexander Boykov and Maria Blagovolina have 10 days to file an appeal.
“We are very disappointed by the verdict. As legal professionals, we believe that the court should be fair to everyone regardless of nationality. The court completely ignored all the evidence of the defense, and most importantly, the guilty plea,” the attorneys said in a statement.
They claim the verdict “absolutely unreasonable.”
They insist that the decision “contradicts the existing legal practice” in Russia.
This type of crime typically has a sentence of five years.
About a third of those convicted get parole, Blagovolina told reporters.
U.S. Proposes A Prisoner Exchange For Griner’s Return
U.S. officials have offered a potential prisoner swap with Russia to safely bring the basketball star home.
On July 27th, CNN reported that as part of a prospective agreement with Russia to free Griner and corporate security director Paul Whelan, the United States has proposed to trade convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
The same day, Antony Blinken, the U.S. Secretary of State, publicly stated that the U.S. government had put a “substantial proposal on the table” but did not confirm reports regarding the Russian arms trafficker.
According to reports, the Russian government replied to the U.S.’s initial offer by requesting that convicted murderer Vadim Krasikov be added to the proposed swap.
Russian officials reportedly communicated the request earlier in July but did so through an informal backchannel.
Her Family Wants Her Home
This has been a difficult time for Griner and her family.
The proposed swap follows months of pressure from Griner’s family and members of the basketball community, including Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner.
Cherelle Griner, Griner’s wife, has been outspoken about her desire for U.S. officials to take more concrete action to bring her wife home.
Days after Cherelle Griner expressed frustrations in a CNN interview, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris called her to reassure her they were committed to securing her wife’s release.
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