KHIMKI, Russia (AP) — American basketball star Brittney Griner was convicted Thursday in Russia of drug possession and smuggling, and was sentenced to nine years in prison in a politically charged case that could ultimately lead to an exchange of high-risk prisoners between Washington and Moscow.
Griner, 31, a two-time US Olympic champion and eight-time star with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, listened with a blank expression as an interpreter translated Judge Anna Sotnikova’s verdict. Griner was also fined 1 million rubles (about $16,700).
US President Joe Biden denounced the verdict and sentence as “unacceptable”, which came amid rising tensions between the US and Russia over Ukraine.
“I am calling on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends and teammates,” Biden said, adding that he would continue to work to bring home Griner and Paul Whelan, an American. imprisoned in Russia on a conviction for espionage.
Outside court, US Embassy Chargé d’Affaires Elizabeth Rood called the result “a miscarriage of justice.”
Griner, widely recognized as one of the greatest players in WNBA history, has been in detention since February 17 after police said they found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage upon landing at Sheremetyevo airport. Moscow. She was returning to Russia, where she has been competing since 2014.
As she was led out of court, Griner said, “I love my family.”
The nine-year sentence was close to the 10-year maximum Griner had faced on the charges. Most Russians who possess small amounts of drugs receive a maximum of five years in prison, the lawyers said.
Defense attorney Maria Blagovolina told reporters later that Griner was “very upset, very stressed. He can barely speak. It’s a difficult time for her.”
Before the unusually quick verdict was reached, an emotional Griner apologized to her family, teammates and the Russian city of Yekaterinburg, where she plays in the WNBA offseason, “for the mistake I made and the embarrassment I put on them.” I caused”.
With a broken voice, he added: “I hope that his ruling does not end my life.”
Under Russian law, Griner has 10 days to appeal and his lawyers say they expect a hearing at the Moscow regional court next week. Asked if Griner could apologize to President Vladimir Putin, Blagovolina said she would consider all possibilities, but the lawyers said they were not part of any discussion of a prisoner swap.
A conviction is often a prerequisite for arranging a prisoner exchange and also allows Griner to apply for a presidential pardon. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said last month that “necessary court procedures” must be completed before further action can be taken.
The revelation in July that the US government was seeking a prisoner exchange involving Griner reflected mounting pressure on the Biden administration to do more to bring her home. The US State Department had previously stated that Griner had been “wrongfully detained”, a charge Russia has strongly denied.
When he took the stand on July 7, Griner said, “I would like to plead guilty to the charges against me. But I had no intention of breaking any Russian law.” He added that he brought the vape canisters to Russia because he had packed them in a hurry for his flight.
In later testimony, Griner described a confusing scene while detained at the airport, saying that an interpreter provided by authorities translated only a fraction of what she was told and officials told her to sign documents, but “nobody explained anything about it.” it’s. to me.” She also said that she was not informed of her rights.
His attorneys presented evidence that Griner was using medical cannabis for chronic pain and injuries sustained during his career and included a letter from his doctor. Griner testified that she knew that cannabis oil was prohibited in Russia and that she did not intend to break the law or “plan to smuggle anything into Russia.”
Trials in Russia continue even after the guilty plea, and there has been speculation that his actions were an attempt to move the legal process forward in the hope of a possible prisoner swap.
Griner’s case and his nearly six months behind bars have drawn sharp criticism from his supporters in the United States, including his wife, Cherelle, that Biden was not doing enough to earn his freedom.
Griner sent a personal appeal to Biden, and more than 1,100 black leaders urged the administration to “make a deal for Brittney to return home quickly and safely and meet with Brittney’s wife, Cherelle, immediately.” Biden then called Cherelle Griner “to assure her that she is working to secure Brittney’s release as soon as possible,” the White House said on July 6.
Cherelle Griner, who also spoke with Vice President Kamala Harris, later said she was “grateful to both of them for their time with me and for the commitment they expressed in bringing BG home,” using his wife’s initials.
On July 27, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington had offered Russia a deal aimed at bringing Griner and Whelan home in a sea change from previous policy. Details of the proposal were not announced, although a person familiar with the matter said the US has offered to exchange convicts. Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for Whelan and Griner. The person insisted on anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.
Russian media have repeatedly speculated that Griner could be swapped for Bout, dubbed “the merchant of death,” who is serving a 25-year sentence in the US after being convicted of conspiring to kill US citizens and provide aid. to a terrorist organization. Russia has campaigned for Bout’s release for years.
His detention became public only after Russian troops entered Ukraine, when relations between Russia and the United States hit new lows after Washington led the West in imposing sanctions against Moscow.
Griner’s plight has been highlighted by his supporters at home, including top athletes, especially after little news emerged of his first weeks of detention in Russia, where he had limited access to US Embassy officials. Only in May did the State Department designate her as wrongfully detained, shifting her case to the supervision of its Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, effectively the government’s top hostage negotiator.
At the ESPY Awards last month, soccer player Megan Rapinoe referred to Griner as “a political prisoner,” and tennis player Billie Jean King said, “First, bring BG home. I have to do that.
NBA Finals MVP Stephan Curry wore Griner’s jersey under his tracksuit at the awards show and urged “the entire global sports community to continue to energize on his behalf. She is one of us, the team of athletes in this room tonight and around the world. A team that has nothing to do with politics or global conflict.”
Griner, a 6-foot-9 center, has 12 of the 15 regular-season dunks in WNBA history and set the single-year record for blocks with 129 in 2014. She led the league in scoring twice. She was a two-time Associated Press College Basketball Player of the Year and led Baylor to a 40-0 season and the 2012 NCAA title. She was Phoenix’s first pick in the 2013 draft.
The WNBA and NBA commissioners called the outcome of the trial “unwarranted and unfortunate, but not unexpected, and Brittney Griner remains in wrongful detention. …Hopefully we are near the end of this process of finally bringing BG home to the United States.”
Associated Press writer Eric Tucker in Washington contributed.