A Russian judge on Thursday handed down a harsh, 9½-year prison sentence for WNBA star Brittney Griner, rejecting the player’s plea for leniency and her apology for “an honest mistake” in bringing less than a gram of cannabis oil into the country in February.
Her fate is now in the hands of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who will make the final decision on any prisoner swap. She also was fined 1 million rubles ($16,590).
Griner pleaded guilty last month to carrying vape cartridges with cannabis oil into the country. The prosecution contended that the 0.702 grams of cannabis found in her luggage after she landed at Sheremetyevo International Airport was a “significant amount.”
Speaking through a court interpreter before the sentencing, Griner said she never intended to break Russian law or harm anyone in Russia.
She had made “an honest mistake under stress,” she said, rushing to pack her bags and return to her Russian team, unaware that the vape cartridges were in her baggage before flying to Moscow in mid-February.
“I grew up in a normal household in Houston, Texas, with my siblings and my mom and my dad. My mom stayed at home to take care of me and my sister, and my father went to work and provided for our family,” she told the judge. “My parents taught me two things: One is to take ownership for your responsibilities, and two, to work hard for everything that you have.”
Griner, who plays for UMMC Ekaterinburg during the WNBA offseason, called Yekaterinburg her “second home.” She said she was moved by the comradeship she found with her teammates there and by the enthusiasm of her fans, especially the young girls who would wait outside the team’s change rooms to greet her. “That’s why I kept coming back.”
The athlete apologized to her teams in Russia and the United States, to her parents and her spouse. She said she was aware of people talking about her as “a political pawn” but distanced herself from such language and said she hoped it would play no role in the court’s decision.
“I never meant to hurt anybody, to put in jeopardy the Russian population or violate any Russian laws,” she noted.
A short time later, as the judge read through her decision, Griner sat in the metal defendant’s cage in the courtroom and listened to the outcome through an interpreter. She received eight years on one count and 18 months on another count, with the judge then taking into account the six months she has already been behind bars.
Griner did not speak to journalists after the hearing ended but said “I love my family” as she was escorted out of the courtroom in handcuffs. Her lawyers promised an appeal and called the verdict “absolutely unreasonable,” faulting the court for having “completely ignored all the evidence of the defense, and most importantly, the guilty plea.”
The White House reacted quickly. “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 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.”
Biden pledged that his administration would “continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue” to return Griner and former security consultant Paul Whelan to the United States. Whelan is serving a 16-year sentence of hard labor after being convicted of spying in 2020. He says he was framed.
A member of her legal team, Alexander Boikov, had told the judge that Griner deserved to be acquitted despite her guilty plea, saying the prosecution had failed to prove criminal intent. In addition, he said, her rights were breached during the investigation and legal process.
“We know that in Russia the laws regarding drugs are very strict,” Boikov said, “but Russia also cares about its prestige in sports.” Griner’s career has been a celebration of friendship between people, he continued. “She had many offers, but she for some reason chose cold Yekaterinburg, knowing how warmly she would be received there.”
But in her remarks as she sentenced Griner, the judge said she did not find the defense’s arguments to be substantial.
The Phoenix Mercury star testified that she uses cannabis oil in the United States for treatment of chronic pain from injuries but knew that carrying cannabis into Russia was illegal. She said she flew to Russia despite U.S. State Department warnings about such travel, because she did not want to let her Russian team down.
The Biden administration is feeling massive public pressure to secure her release, a behind-the-scenes negotiation greatly complicated by the collapse of relations between Washington and Moscow because of the Ukraine war.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov late last week, urging him to accept a deal involving Griner and Whelan. The United States has declined to say whether the pair would be swapped for Russian Viktor Bout, an arms trafficker who was arrested in a U.S. sting operation in Thailand in 2008.
Blinken issued his own statement after the hearing and said Griner’s sentence “further compounds the injustice of her wrongful detention. This step puts a spotlight on our significant concerns with Russia’s legal system and the Russian government’s use of wrongful detentions to advance its own agenda, using individuals as political pawns.”
Securing her release and Whelan’s “is an absolute priority of mine” and the State Department, he added.
The administration’s announcement of its proposed deal appears to be an effort to curb criticisms of its handling of the Griner case. But the Kremlin has told Washington to refrain from “megaphone diplomacy,” with Russian Foreign Ministry officials repeatedly warning that public calls will not help her cause.
John Kirby, spokesman for the U.S. National Security Council, said Tuesday that the administration was not going to negotiate in public.
“We’ve made a serious proposal, made a serious offer,” Kirby said. “And we urge the Russians to take that offer because it was done with sincerity, and we know we can back it up.”
In past years, the United States has resisted Russian pressures to exchange Bout given the seriousness of his offenses. He was convicted in New York in 2011 and later sentenced to 25 years in prison for conspiracy to sell surface-to-air missiles, AK-47s and explosives to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, knowing that they planned to shoot down U.S. helicopters.
A deal to bring Bout home would be a major political victory for Putin, signaling to his domestic audience that despite unprecedented Western criticisms and sanctions, he still has the clout to force the White House to negotiate with him.
Bloomberg News has reported that as part of an exchange, Moscow may seek the release of a wealthy Russian businessman close to the Kremlin, Vladislav Klyushin, who pleaded not guilty in a Boston court in January over an alleged $82 million insider trading scam. Klyushin claimed the case against him was “politically motivated” because of his ties to the Russian government.