US’ Women’s National Basketball Association (NBA) basketball player Brittney Griner, who was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport and later charged with illegal possession of cannabis, waits for the verdict inside a defendants’ cage before a court hearing in Khimki outside Moscow, on August 4, 2022.
Evgenia Novozhenina | AFP | Getty Images
WASHINGTON – A Russian court on Thursday found Brittney Griner guilty of drug charges and sentenced her to nine years in prison, as the U.S. government scrambles to secure the WNBA star’s release.
The court also fined Griner 1 million rubles ($16,301).
The 31-year-old Griner, who plays professional basketball in Russia during the WNBA offseason, was arrested in February at a Russian airport on accusations that she was smuggling vape cartridges with cannabis oil.
Under Russian law, the charge carried a penalty of up to 10 years in prison. During closing arguments, Russian prosecutors asked the court to sentence her to 9½ years in prison and issue the 1 million ruble fine.
Griner asked the court for leniency earlier Thursday.
“I never meant to hurt anybody,” Griner said following closing arguments, according to NBC News. “I never meant to put in jeopardy the Russian population. I never meant to break any laws here.”
Her lawyers have previously said Griner only uses cannabis medically and has never used it while in Russia.
Last month, Griner pleaded guilty to the charges but said she had unintentionally packed the cannabis canisters in her suitcase because she was in a hurry.
The court’s decision comes one week after the Biden administration confirmed it made an offer to the Russian government for the release of Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan. In a statement Thursday, President Joe Biden called the prison sentence “unacceptable” and called for Griner’s immediate release.
“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 wrote in a statement.
“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 president added.
Last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters that the U.S. “put a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago” for Griner and Whelan’s release. The top U.S. diplomat also said he would discuss the offer with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in what would be the first known conversation between the two since the Kremlin invaded Ukraine.
“This is delicate work,” National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters during a White House press briefing. “We’ve made a proposal, and we urge the Russians to move positively on that proposal so we can get these two individuals home.”
“The details of it, I think are best left between us and our Russian counterparts,” Kirby said.
‘I’m terrified I might be here forever’
US WNBA basketball superstar Brittney Griner stands inside a defendants’ cage before a hearing at the Khimki Court, outside Moscow on July 26, 2022.
Alexander Zemlianichenko | AFP | Getty Images
Days before she pleaded guilty last month, Griner penned a letter to Biden asking for his direct help with her case.
“I sit here in a Russian prison, alone with my thoughts and without the protection of my wife, family, friends, Olympic jersey, or any accomplishments, I’m terrified I might be here forever,” the professional athlete wrote in a July 5 letter.
“I realize you are dealing with so much, but please don’t forget about me and … other American detainees. Please do all you can to bring us home,” Griner wrote.
After receiving the letter, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris called the WNBA star’s wife, Cherelle Griner. Biden also wrote a response to Griner that U.S. diplomats hand-delivered in Moscow.
Biden reassured her wife that he is working to secure Griner’s release as soon as possible, according to a White House readout of the call. He also said on the call that he is working to release Whelan, who is serving a 16-year sentence in Russia.
Whelan was arrested in 2018 on charges of acting as a spy for the United States. At the time he was arrested, Whelan was visiting Russia to attend a wedding, according to his brother, David Whelan.
Last month, Biden signed an executive order that will expand the administration’s available tools to deter hostage-taking and the wrongful detention of U.S. nationals.
The executive order, known as “Bolstering Efforts to Bring Hostages and Wrongfully Detained United States Nationals Home,” will authorize the imposition of financial sanctions and visa bans on people involved in hostage-taking.
“This executive order reflects the administration’s commitment not just to the issues generally but to the families in particular, and it has been informed by the government’s regular engagements with them,” said a senior Biden administration official last month, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to share details about the new executive order.
In April, Russia agreed to release former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed in a prisoner exchange with the United States.
Reed was accused of assaulting a Russian police officer and detained by authorities there in 2019. He was later sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison. Reed and his family have maintained his innocence, and the U.S. government described him as unjustly imprisoned.
For Reed’s release, Biden agreed to free Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot serving a 20-year federal prison sentence for conspiracy to smuggle cocaine into the United States.