Brittney Griner, the two-time U.S. Olympic gold medal basketball player and WNBA star, was found guilty Thursday in Russia of drug smuggling and possession and sentenced to nine years in jail. The news comes six months after Griner was arrested at a Moscow airport while entering the country with cannabis oil in her luggage.
Her lawyers said they plan to appeal the ruling.
“We are very disappointed by the verdict,” said Griner’s attorneys Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov. “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. This contradicts the existing legal practice. Taking into account the amount of the substance (not to mention the defects of the expertise) and the plea, the verdict is absolutely unreasonable. We will certainly file an appeal.”
The high-profile case has reached the steps of both the U.S. State Department and the Kremlin, with the U.S. urging the release of Griner who has been in custody since her arrest in February. There have even been discussions between the countries about a prisoner swap that would also include Paul Whelan, an American accused of spying who has been in Russian custody since 2018.
“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,” President Joe Biden said in a statement after the sentencing was announced. “It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates. My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible.”
The Associated Press reported that Griner showed little emotion after the sentence was read out today in the court in Khimki, a city just outside Moscow. She was also fined 1 million rubles, with the judge counting the time served toward Griner’s sentence.
Before the verdict was read, prosecutors called for a 9 1/2-year jail sentence for Griner, who pleaded guilty to the charges last month in hopes of 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 told the courtroom Thursday, per the AP. “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 pawn and politics, but I hope that that is far from this courtroom.”