A Russian court has found U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner guilty of drug smuggling and sentenced her to nine years in prison, a punishment that sparked anger from teammates and athletes around the world and which U.S. President Joe Biden called "unacceptable."
A handcuffed Griner, a two-time Olympic champion, was led out of the courtroom in the Moscow suburb of Khimki on August 4 after Judge Anna Sotnikova handed down the sentence, which also includes a fine of 1 million rubles ($16,300). Griner has 10 days to appeal the ruling, which her lawyers said they would do.
Even though a remorseful Griner took responsibility for what she called in her final statement "an honest mistake" by packing vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her bags, prosecutors requested that the court sentence her to 9 1/2 years in prison. The maximum sentence allowed under Russian law is 10 years.
During her final statement, Griner made an emotional apology to her family, teammates and the Russian city of Yekaterinburg, where she plays in the off-season of the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA), “for my mistake that I made and the embarrassment that I brought on them.”
With her voice cracking, she added: “I hope in your ruling it does not end my life.”
"I love my family," the 31-year-old said quietly to reporters as she was being led away.
Cannabis is illegal in Russia for both medicinal and recreational purposes.
Griner, an eight-time all-star recognized as one of the greatest players in the history of the WNBA, has been detained since February 17 after police said they found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage upon landing at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. She was returning to Russia, where she has competed since 2014.
Her detention was made public only after Russian troops moved into Ukraine, as relations between Russia and the United States hit new lows after Washington led the West in bringing sanctions against Moscow.
In a rare move, U.S. President Joe Biden issued a statement minutes after the sentence was announced, saying the case was "one more reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney."
"It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates," the statement said.
White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said later that Russia should accept a U.S. offer for the release of Griner and another American imprisoned in Russia.
"We have made a substantial offer to bring her and Paul Whelan home. We urge Russia to accept that proposal," said Jean-Pierre.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke by phone on July 29 to discuss the proposal, which Blinken said involved Griner and Whelan in a prisoner swap. News reports quoting U.S. sources have said that the Russian swapped for the two would be jailed arms dealer Viktor Bout.
Outside the courtroom, Griner's lawyers promised an appeal would be filed with the court, adding that some of the case files had been drawn up in violation of the law.
"The court has completely ignored the defense’s arguments and the defendant’s admission of guilt. Considering all that, we view the penalty term assigned by the court as totally unjustified. We will file an appeal," one of Griner’s lawyers, Maria Blagovolina, said.
The case comes during the most strained U.S.-Russian relations since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and has put Biden under pressure to intervene on behalf of Americans detained in Russia, including Griner and Whelan. The U.S. government has deemed both of them to have been "wrongfully detained."
"My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible," Biden's statement after the sentence added.
Detained en route to join her Russian team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, after a brief trip home to the United States, Griner had pleaded guilty to the charge of being in possession of the cannabis-oil cartridges, saying she must have accidentally packed them while rushing to the airport for her flight to Russia.
Griner's WNBA team, the Phoenix Mercury, was scheduled to play a game later on August 4. It called the verdict a "sobering milestone" in Griner's "nightmare," while the league, in a joint statement with the National Basketball Association, said the ruling was "unjustified and unfortunate."
A conviction is usually a prerequisite to arranging a prisoner exchange and also allows Griner to apply for a pardon from Russian President Vladimir Putin.