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A Russian court sentences WNBA star Brittney Griner to 9 years on drug charges

rittney Griner holds a picture of her Russian basketball team as she stands inside a defendants' cage before a court hearing in Khimki, outside Moscow, on Thursday.
Evgenia Novozhenina
/
AFP via Getty Images
rittney Griner holds a picture of her Russian basketball team as she stands inside a defendants' cage before a court hearing in Khimki, outside Moscow, on Thursday.

Updated August 4, 2022 at 12:46 PM ET

MOSCOW — A Russian court has found Brittney Griner guilty on drug smuggling and possession charges. The widely expected verdict comes after a monthlong trial and nearly six months after the basketball star was arrested at a Moscow-area airport with cannabis vape cartridges in her luggage.

The judge sentenced Griner to nine years in prison. Her charges carried up to 10 years, and the Russian prosecution had requested a sentence of nine years and six months in a penal colony.

The trial's outcome was not unusual given that Russian criminal courts have a reported conviction rate of 99%. But it appears that Griner's fate will now be decided in the political arena.

The Biden administration, under public pressure to secure her release, has tried to negotiate with Russia to free her as well as another jailed American, Paul Whelan. Russia has said any potential deal — including a rumored prisoner swap that could see the U.S. release notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout — would have to wait until after the court's verdict.

In a statement released shortly after the verdict, President Biden called Griner's sentence "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," he added. "My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible."

Secretary of State Antony Blinken echoed that pledge in a statement of his own, in which he said the court's decision "puts a spotlight on our significant concerns with Russia's legal system and the Russian government's use of wrongful detentions to advance its own agenda, using individuals as political pawns."

"Russia, and any country engaging in wrongful detention, represents a threat to the safety of everyone traveling, working, and living abroad," Blinken continued. "The United States opposes this practice everywhere. "

Griner's agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, wrote on Twitter that she appreciated the efforts the United States was making to secure the player's release.

"Today's sentencing of Brittney Griner was severe by Russian legal standards and goes to prove what we have known all along, that Brittney is being used as a political pawn," Colas wrote.

Griner admitted to making 'an honest mistake'

Earlier on Thursday, as the two sides delivered closing remarks, Griner's defense attorney called for her to be acquitted, or for the court to show leniency in any punishment she's given. The 31-year-old also spoke on her own behalf.

"I made an honest mistake and I hope that in your ruling that it doesn't end my life here," Griner said.

The Olympian and NBA champion says she must have put the cannabis in her bag by mistake. Her defense team notes that Griner has a medical marijuana card in Arizona to help her cope with injuries sustained over years of competition. But personal cannabis possession is illegal under any circumstances in Russia, similar to U.S. federal law.

In their closing arguments, Griner's defense attorneys cited Griner's contributions to the growth of Russian women's basketball and detailed irregularities in her arrest and detention — including a lack of access to qualified translators — in arguing for Griner's acquittal or at least a lenient sentence.

Her lawyers also noted that the basketball star was prescribed medical marijuana by a U.S. doctor to treat chronic pain in the offseason — and still had never failed a drug test.

"What does this show?" said defense counsel Maria Blagovolina. "It shows that Brittney Griner used marijuana only at home and only in very small doses and that she had no intention to bring the substance into Russia."

In her final statement to the judge, Griner reiterated that she never intended to break any laws or hurt anyone.

She apologized to her Russian teammates for any damage she may have caused, adding that "this is my second home and all I wanted to do was win championships and make them proud."

Her ordeal began just before Russia invaded Ukraine

Griner was arrested in February, one week before Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine. Her detention quickly led to speculation that Putin's government wants to use her as leverage against the U.S. Griner alluded to that in her closing remarks to the judge on Thursday.

"I know everybody keeps talking about political pawn and politics, but I hope that is far from this courtroom," she said.

Here's a quick recap of Griner's ordeal:

  • Feb. 17: Griner is detained at Sheremetyevo International Airport outside Moscow
  • May 3: The U.S. State Department declares Griner wrongfully detained
  • May 28: U.S. Ambassador to Russia John J. Sullivan calls Griner a "bargaining chip" amid talk of a possible prisoner exchange
  • July 1: Prosecutors unseal their case in court as the trial begins
  • July 7: Griner pleads guilty to drug charges as talk of a prisoner swap grows
  • July 27: Griner testifies, saying she inadvertently brought the cannabis to Russia
  • July 27: The U.S. says it offered Russia a deal to free Griner and another jailed American, Paul Whelan
  • Aug. 4: Closing arguments begin
  • Athletes and activists at home are calling for her release

    Griner is a star center for the Phoenix Mercury. But like many WNBA players, she plays in overseas leagues during the U.S. league's offseason, earning far more than her WNBA salary. In recent years, she has played for UMMC Ekaterinburg, a Russian team owned by oligarch Iskander Makhmudov. The team has had longstanding ties to Griner's U.S. club.

    Griner was returning to her Russian team from the U.S. when she was detained.

    WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement on Thursday that the verdict and sentencing are "unjustified and unfortunate, but not unexpected."

    "The WNBA and NBA's commitment to her safe return has not wavered and it is our hope that we are near the end of this process of finally bringing BG home to the United States," they added.

    The effort to free Griner has grown from her fans and fellow basketball players to include a much broader circle. This summer, dozens of rights groups, including the Human Rights Campaign, the National Organization for Women and National LGBTQ Task Force wrote a letter to President Biden urging him to treat her case with urgency.

    Maynes reported from Russia. Chappell and Treisman reported from Washington, D.C.

    This is a developing story. Check back here for updates.

    Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
    Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.