Brittney Griner’s month-long circus of a criminal trial has concluded, as a Russian court on Thursday found the basketball star guilty of an attempt to smuggle illegal drugs into Russia, according to her lawyers and the New York Times. She has been sentenced to 9 years in Russian prison.
Though shocking, a conviction of this nature and length has been predicted by legal experts familiar with the Russian justice system for months, calling the proceedings a “show trial” meant to drum up international outrage and attention. Griner had previously pleaded guilty not as an admission of guilt but as a tactic to move the trial along swiftly. A Russian prosecutor, according to the AP, had urged the court to convict and sentence the WNBA star to at least 9 ½ years in prison. Griner’s lawyers, meanwhile, appealed to the judge for leniency in her sentencing. The maximum sentence for cannabis, which is illegal in Russia, is 10 years in prison.
President Joe Biden, who’s proposed a prisoner swap with Russia for both Griner and former Marine Paul Whelan, called the sentence “unacceptable.”
Griner’s Russian legal team called the verdict “absolutely unreasonable,” according to the Times, and said “we will certainly file an appeal.” The team, part of the Moscow Legal Center, maintain the court had “completely ignored all the evidence of the defense, and most importantly, the guilty plea.”
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Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow Elizabeth Rood spoke to press outside the courthouse following Griner’s sentencing:
“This is nothing but an intensional oversight. This is a miscarriage of justice. The US Department of State has determined that Miss Griner was wrongfully detained. Nothing in today’s decision changes that determination. Together with consular officers from the US Embassy here in Moscow, I attended every session of Miss Griner’s trial. We will continue to be closely engaged in this case. We will remain in frequent contact with Miss Griner and with her legal team. Secretary of State Blinken, President Biden, President Biden’s national security team, and the entire American government remain committed to bringing Miss Griner home safely to her family, friends, and loved ones, and I as chargé d’affaires of the US Embassy in Moscow will also do my best to bring her home safely. I will continue to do everything to care for the safety and wellbeing of Miss Griner and of all U.S. citizens detained in the Russian Federation. We have no higher priority. Thank you. I have no further comments.”
Before taking her place in the defendant’s cage earlier in Thursday’s proceedings, according to Reuters, Griner held up a photo of UMMC Ekaterinburg, the Russian team she played for during the WNBA offseason. Griner was emotional Thursday as she apologized in a Russian court on the last day of her trial. She testified that she never meant to break the law by bringing vape cartridges with cannabis oil into Moscow, but was simply dealing with pain from injuries sustained earlier in the basketball season, adding that she was looking forward to playing basketball in Yekaterinburg, which had become her “second home.” She made “an honest mistake,” she told the court, asking them not to “end [her] life.”
“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 said. “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.”
Griner lawyer Maria Blagovolina presented character witnesses from the player’s Russian team, as well as written testimony from the doctor that granted Griner a cannabis prescription as pain medication. She argued Griner had no past criminal record, let alone criminal intent, and that the hashish wound up in her luggage due to “hasty packing.” Hailing Griner’s role in “the development of Russian basketball,” Blagovolina then pointed out that the search and confiscation of Griner’s possessions violated legal procedures. She asked the court to acquit Griner.
Griner’s second defense attorney Alexander Boykov focused on Griner’s kind demeanor and her athletic prowess, noting that she’d led Yekaterinburg to multiple championships, that she was loved and admired by her teammates, and that a conviction would undermine Russia’s attempts to depoliticize national sports. In a plea for sympathy, Boykov added that Griner had even won over both her guards and prison inmates, who often shouted to her as she walked around the jail, “Brittney, everything will be OK!”
“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,” Griner said, holding back tears. “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.”
Prosecutor Nikolai Vlasenko argued that Griner packed the cannabis oil deliberately, the AP reported, and recommended a fine of 1 million rubles (or $16,700) on top of the requested prison sentence.
With Griner’s conviction confirmed, the U.S. will now turn to discussions of a prisoner swap. Last week, marking the highest-level contact between the two countries since the invasion of Ukraine, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, proposing the Russian government swap Griner and fellow American detainee Paul Whelan for convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout. White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Monday that Russia has made a “bad faith” response to the offer, declining to provide further details.
This story is developing.