Brittney Griner will be sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison on drug possession and smuggling charges, a Russian judge ruled Thursday, leaving the All-Star WNBA basketball player with only one option for release: a prisoner swap with the United States.
Griner, a center for the Phoenix Mercury, was arrested at Sheremetyevo International Airport near Moscow almost six months ago. Griner was stopped by Russian customs after they discovered less than a gram of cannabis oil in her luggage when she flew into Russia to play during the American league’s off-season.
Griner sat in a cell as the judge read the sentence, as is customary for people on trial in Russia. When the judge asked her to speak after the sentencing, she remained silent.
Griner was sentenced to prison and fined 1 million rubles ($16,000).
Griner’s trial, held just outside of Moscow, ended about an hour before the judge’s decision. At the conclusion of the month-long trial, Russian prosecutors requested that Griner be sentenced to nine and a half years in prison, six months short of the maximum penalty.
Griner pleaded guilty to the drug charges at the start of the trial last month. She and her defense team claimed the drugs were brought to Russia by mistake because she had rushed to pack for her trip. Last month, her attorneys presented the court with a marijuana prescription from a doctor in Griner’s home state of Arizona.
The basketball player apologized once more on Thursday for bringing cannabis oil into the country.
“I never intended to hurt anyone, I never intended to endanger the Russian people, and I never intended to break any laws here,” Griner said in court. “I made an honest mistake, and I hope that your decision does not end my life here.” I know everyone keeps bringing up political pawns and politics, but I hope that isn’t the case in this courtroom.”
US Vice President Joe Biden demanded Griner’s immediate release.
“It’s unconscionable, and I urge Russia to immediately release her so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates,” Biden said in a statement issued shortly after the sentencing. “My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to return Brittney and Paul Whelan safely to their families as soon as possible.”
The US government attempted to have Griner return home before the end of her trial. Russia reported last month that the US offered to exchange convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for both Griner and ex-Marine Whelan, who has been imprisoned in Russia since 2020. Bout is 11 years into a 25-year prison sentence for conspiring to sell weapons to people planning to kill Americans.
CNN reported earlier this week, citing multiple unnamed sources, that the Russian spy agency FSB asked the US for both Bout and Vadim Krasikov, a Russian colonel sentenced to life in prison in Germany for murdering a Chechen fighter there in 2019.
Griner’s incarceration has sparked a heated debate about everything from US-Russia relations to the treatment of female athletes in the United States. Her arrest came just a week before Russia invaded Ukraine, a military operation that the United States and its allies condemned even before it began. Many experts believe Griner’s detention was a calculated move by the Russian government to maintain leverage in the months following its attack on Ukraine.
Griner’s case also highlighted the lack of compensation for female players, who are paid a fraction of what their male counterparts earn and frequently have to play in foreign countries to supplement their income.
Fans were concerned about Griner’s well-being in the early months of her incarceration due to radio silence about her arrest and potential efforts to get her released. Griner, a 6-foot-7, Black, and openly gay basketball player, was imprisoned in a country known for its hostility toward both Black people and the LGBTQ community, prompting many to believe that corruption would pervade her trial.
However, as the trial date approached, celebrities, teammates, and athletes began to speak out in support of the player. Griner wrote to Biden last month, asking him to “don’t forget about me.”
Griner did not have universal support. Former President Donald Trump criticised the efforts to swap a Russian criminal for the basketball player earlier this week, saying Griner was “spoiled” and deserved to be imprisoned.
“She knew you didn’t go in there drugged up,” Trump said. “She was apprehended. And we’re supposed to get her out now.”