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Russian court sentences Brittney Griner on drug charges

August 4, 2022

The court handed Griner a nine-year sentence after finding she committed the crime "deliberately," despite her pleas that it was an "honest mistake." The US has made Russia a prisoner swap offer for the basketball star.

Brittney Griner is escorted from a court room in Khimki just outside Moscow, Russia
WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner said her parents had taught her to take ownership of her responsibilitiesImage: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP Photo/picture alliance

A Russian court sentenced American basketball star Brittney Griner to nine years in prison for drug charges on Thursday.

The 31-year-old athlete was found guilty of drug possession and smuggling vape cartridges with cannabis oil into the country.

Griner pleaded guilty in July to carrying the cartridges but said she had no intention of breaking the law.

"I want to apologize to my teammates, my club, my fans and the city of (Yekaterinburg) for my mistake that I made and the embarrassment that I brought on them,'' the three-time WNBA league champion and seven-time All-Star said before sentencing on Thursday.

"I want to also apologize to my parents, my siblings, the Phoenix Mercury organization back at home, the amazing women of the WNBA, and my amazing spouse back at home,'' she added, her voice cracking.

Judge Anna Sotnikova found that Griner had committed the crime "deliberately," and the sentence is close to the 10-year maximum penalty.

Griner was also fined 1 million rubles ($16,000, €15,650).

After the sentencing, Griner appeared sad and stony-faced, and said she understood the sentence.

Her defense team said they will appeal the verdict adding they were "disappointed" the court had ignored all evidence they had presented as well as Griner's guilty plea.

Biden says sentence is 'unacceptable'

US President Joe Biden described her sentencing as "unacceptable" and called on Moscow to release her immediately.

"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 a statement.

The WNBA, the US professional women's basketball league, blasted the conviction and sentence saying the "verdict is unjustified and unfortunate, but not unexpected."

"The WNBA and NBA's commitment to her safe return has not wavered," said WNBA Commissioner Cathy Englebert in a joint statement with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.

They said they hoped the sentencing would open the door for Griner to return to the US.

Brittney Griner inside a defendants' cage at a court in Khimki
Griner listens to the judgment in a courtroom in Khimki just outside MoscowImage: Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters/AP/picture alliance

US-Russia prisoner swap offer

Griner's arrest came at a time of heightened tensions between Moscow and Washington.

Before her trial began in July, the US State Department designated her as "wrongfully detained." Russia, however, denied that her detention was motivated by US-Russia tensions.

The two-time Olympic basketball gold medalist said on Thursday she hoped it didn't play a role in the outcome of her trial, "I know everybody keeps talking about political pawn and politics, but I hope that is far from this courtroom." 

Last week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov,  discussing a potential prisoner swap involving the basketball star.

The US reportedly offered to free convicted arms dealer Viktor Boutin exchange for Griner and former US Marine Paul Whelan.

On Thursday Blinken said the US wanted to ensure their return "as soon as possible."

The Blinken-Lavrov call marked the highest-level known contact between Washington and Moscow since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Monday that Russia has made a "bad faith'' response to the offer, a counteroffer that American officials don't regard as serious. She declined to elaborate.

lo/nm (AP, Reuters)