A Russian court has found WNBA star Brittney Griner guilty of attempting to smuggle illegal narcotics into Russia, sentencing her to nine years in a penal colony.
Griner, whom the United States insists has been wrongfully detained by the Russian government, was arrested at a Moscow airport on Feb. 17 while traveling to Yekaterinburg, where she had been playing for a local team during the off-season to earn extra money.
Customs officials checking Griner’s luggage at the airport allegedly found two vape cartridges containing less than one gram of hashish oil, a drug made from parts of the cannabis plant, which is banned in Russia. She was arrested and detained, but news of her detention was only made public after Russia invaded Ukraine a week later.
During one of the initial hearings in her case, Griner pleaded guilty to the charge, but insisted she had never intended to break Russian law, and that the vape cartridges were in her luggage due to an oversight while packing in a hurry.
The judge also fined Griner 1 million rubles, or about $16,300, as part of her sentence.
According to The New York Times, Griner’s lawyers had asked the court to take into account Griner’s personality and the role she has played in the development of Russian basketball playing for EMMC Ekaterinburg in the WNBA off-season, asking for a “milder” penalty.
Addressing the court, Griner talked about her upbringing in Houston and the values her parents instilled in her, including 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. “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.”
Unfortunately for Griner, Russian courts are known to give harsher sentences to high-profile foreigners accused of breaking the law. In 2020, a Russian court sentenced Trevor Reed, a former U.S. Marine, to nine years in prison for allegedly assaulting two police officers during an altercation — the harshest punishment for the charges against him. He was released in April after being exchanged for a Russian pilot convicted in 2011 of smuggling drugs into the United States, as part of a prisoner swap.
Additionally, Griner’s arrest, coinciding with the deterioration of U.S.-Russia relations — stemming from the United States’ support for Ukraine during the ongoing Russian invasion, and the condemnation of Russia’s actions — left many observers claiming that she was being used as a pawn as part of a politically-motivated trial intended to embarrass a high-profile American.
The U.S. has reportedly raised the possibility of a prisoner swap, in which Griner and Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine and businessman who has been detained since 2018 on espionage charges, would be exchanged for a Russian national and convicted arms dealer, who allegedly tried to sell weapons, including anti-aircraft missiles, to federal agents posing as members of the guerrilla group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
Russian officials say that a verdict in her trial was needed in order to arrange any future prisoner exchange involving Griner, a former Olympian and seven-time WNBA All-Star.
According to the Times, Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussed the possibility of a prisoner swap with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, last week, but no agreements have been reached. Meanwhile, the Biden administration continues to face pressure from Griner’s fans and family to negotiate her release.
Blinken claimed the United States had “put a substantial proposal on the table” regarding a possible swap, but declined to discuss specifics. But Russian officials have criticized the United States for publicizing its efforts to get Griner released, saying such conversations “should be discreet.”
“Megaphone diplomacy and the public exchange of opinions will not lead to result,” said Dmitri Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman.
Griner previously penned a handwritten letter to President Joe Biden, asking him not to forget her or other Americans wrongfully detained in Russia, and to work to bring them home and saying she was “terrified” she might be detained for the rest of her life.
“I believe in you,” Griner told Biden in that letter. “I still have so much good to do with my freedom that you can help restore. … I am grateful for whatever you can do at this moment to get me home.”