A Russian court sentenced U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner to nine years in prison on Thursday after finding her guilty of deliberately bringing cannabis-infused vape cartridges into Russia, a ruling that President Joe Biden called “unacceptable.”
Griner was arrested in mid-February, and her case threw the Texan athlete into the geopolitical maelstrom triggered when President Vladimir Putin sent troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24, propelling U.S.-Russia relations to a new post-Cold War low.
Griner’s sentencing could now pave the way for a U.S.-Russia prisoner swap that would include the 31-year-old athlete and an imprisoned Russian who was once a prolific arms dealer.
Griner had admitted having the vape cartridges containing hashish oil but said it was an honest mistake. Before the verdict, she pleaded with a Russian judge not to “end her life” with a harsh prison sentence, before breaking down in tears in court. The court also fined her 1 million roubles ($16,990).
Biden, under pressure to help free Americans held in Russia, called on Russia to release Griner immediately and said his administration would continue to work for her release.
“Today, American citizen Brittney Griner received a prison sentence that is one more reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney,” Biden said in a statement.
“It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates.”
Griner’s defence lawyers said they would appeal. The defence team said that in sentencing the court had ignored all evidence they had presented as well as Griner’s guilty plea. They said they were “disappointed” by the verdict.
The Russian prosecutor had called for Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medallist and a Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) star, to be sentenced to 9-1/2 years prison if she was found guilty of bringing illegal drugs into the country.
‘Honest mistake’Griner was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on Feb. 17 with the cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage. While she pleaded guilty, she said she had neither intended to bring a banned substance to Russia nor to hurt anybody.
“I made an honest mistake and I hope that in your ruling, that it doesn’t end my life here,” Griner said in court on Thursday before breaking down in tears.
“My parents taught me two important things: one, take ownership of your responsibilities and two, work hard for everything that you have. That’s why I pled guilty to my charges.”
Griner also referred to the international politics around her case.
“I know everybody keeps talking about political pawn and politics, but I hope that is far from this courtroom,” Griner said.
Cannabis is illegal in Russia for both medicinal and recreational purposes.
Sporting legendGriner’s defence team had called for her to be acquitted. Her lawyers said on Thursday that if the court deemed it necessary to punish her, she should be treated leniently, casting her as a sporting legend alongside Usain Bolt and Michael Schumacher.
“In sprinting there is Usain Bolt, in Formula 1 Michael Schumacher, and in women’s basketball there is Brittney Griner,” lawyer Maria Blagovolina, a partner at Rybalkin Gortsunyan Dyakin and Partners law firm, told the court.
Alexander Boikov, her other lawyer, said some of the case files were drawn up in violation of the law.
The United States has offered to exchange Russian prisoners for American citizens including Griner and former Marine Paul Whelan.
“I want to say again that I had no intent on breaking any Russians laws,” Griner told the court. “I had no intent, I did not conspire or plan to commit this crime.”
Geopolitical ‘pawn’?One source familiar with the situation said that Washington was willing to exchange convicted arms trafficker Viktor Bout, whose life helped inspire the 2005 Hollywood film “Lord of War” starring Nicholas Cage.
Russian officials have said a deal has not been reached. They argue that Griner – known as “BG” to basketball fans – violated laws and should be judged accordingly.
Griner appeared at the hearing in a grey T-shirt and round-rimmed glasses. Before taking a seat in the defendant’s cage, she held up a team picture of UMMC Ekaterinburg, the team she played for in Russia during the WNBA offseason.
In her testimony last week, Griner expressed puzzlement as to how the vape cartridges ended up in her luggage as she was flying back to Russia to join UMMC Ekaterinburg for the playoffs.
“I still don’t understand to this day how they ended up in my bag,” said Griner, the first pick overall in the 2013 WNBA draft. “If I had to guess on how they ended up in my bags, I was in a rush packing.”
Griner had been prescribed medical marijuana in the United States to relieve pain from chronic injuries, a treatment method that is common among elite athletes because it has fewer side effects than some painkillers.