Brittney Griner has been sentenced to nine years in a penal colony after being found guilty of drug possession and smuggling with criminal intent by a Russian court.
Ms Griner was also fined a million rubles (around $16,300) by the court.
Her defence team slammed the verdict, calling it “absolutely unreasonable”, adding that they “will certainly file an appeal”, The New York Times reported.
President Joe Biden issued a statement on the verdict, saying that Ms Griner “received a prison sentence that is 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. My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible”, he added.
Attorney General Merrick Garland said that “Ms Griner was unlawfully detained but beyond that I really can’t comment”.
Prosecutors had argued for a sentence of nine and a half years during closing arguments amid concerns that she’s being used as a political pawn as Russia struggles under widespread sanctions imposed by the West as a response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The guilty verdict was expected as few defendants are acquitted in the Russian judicial system, according to The Times.
Ms Griner’s future is now to be decided in negotiations between Russian and US diplomats. The US has suggested a prisoner swap – Ms Griner and Mr Whelan, a former Marine in jail in Russia on a charge of espionage that he has called “fictitious” and “fabricated”, for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout – the so-called “Merchant of Death” who is serving a 25-year sentence in the US.
The Pheonix Mercury center has been detained since 17 February when she was arrested at a Moscow airport while she was on her way to play for her Russian team, Yekaterinburg, east of the Ural mountains. Russian officials have said that a verdict needed to be handed down before a possible swap could take place. US officials have said that she’s wrongly detained.
Ms Griner grew emotional in court on Thursday ahead of the verdict being handed down, apologizing to her team and family in the case that has reached the highest echelons of US and Russian diplomacy.
The top diplomats of the US and Russia, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, discussed the issue last week – their first conversation since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Nothing was agreed during the call.
Before the verdict was handed down, Ms Griner said she didn’t intend to break the law when she brought vape cartridges on her flight.
“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”, Ms Griner said, according to the Associated Press. “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.”
“I made an honest mistake, and I hope in your ruling it does not end my life”, she added.
Ms Griner said that Yekaterinburg had become a “second home” for her.
“I had no idea that the team, the cities, the fans, my teammates would make such a great impression on me over the six and a half years that I spent here”, she told the court. “I remember vividly coming out of the gym and all the little girls that were in the stands there waiting on me, and that’s what kept making me come back here.”
Lawyers for Ms Griner put forward character witnesses from her Russian team which she played for during the WNBA offseason as well as written testimony from the doctor who issued the cannabis prescription for treating pain.
Ms Blagovolina argued that Ms Griner should be acquitted, citing her lack of a criminal record and because of her work in “the development of Russian basketball”.
Another lawyer defending Ms Griner, Alexander Boykov, spoke about her role in winning several championships with her Russian team, adding that she’s loved by her teammates and that many of them look up to her.
Mr Boykov told the court that Ms Griner being convicted would hamper Russian efforts to improve their national sports and go against Moscow saying that politics should be removed from sports.
The attorney noted that following her arrest, Ms Griner gained the liking of the guards and other inmates, with some shouting “Brittney, everything will be okay!” during her walks at the jail.
Ms Blagovolina argued ahead of the verdict that “there should be a milder penalty”.
Ms Griner told the court ahead of the sentencing on Thursday that her parents had raised her to “take ownership for your responsibilities”.
“That’s why I pleaded guilty to my charges – I understand everything that has been said against me in the charges against me, but I had no intent to break Russian law”, she said, according to The Times. “I want the court to understand that it was an honest mistake that I made while rushing and in stress trying to recover post-Covid and just trying to get back to my team.”
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