Out American women's basketball star Brittney Griner was convicted of smuggling drugs into Russia and sentenced to nine years in a case that has raised concerns she is being used as a political pawn.
Judge Anna Sotnikova of the Khimki city court delivered the sentence and fined Griner one million rubles (US$16,000, £13,000). The judge said the court took into account Griner's partial admission of guilt, remorse, health, and charitable activities. Prosecutors had asked that she be sentenced to nine and a half years in jail.
In a speech prior to the verdict, Griner apologized and asked for leniency. “I never meant to hurt anybody, I never meant to put in jeopardy the Russian population, I never meant to break any laws here,” Griner said. “I made an honest mistake and I hope that in your ruling that it doesn't end my life here. I know everybody keeps talking about political pawn and politics, but I hope that, that is far from this courtroom. I want to say again that I had no intent on breaking any Russian laws. I had no intent. I did not conspire or plan to commit this crime,” she added.
After the sentence, Griner told a CNN producer as she left court, “I love my family.”
Griner's lawyers said they will appeal the decision and criticized the court for ignoring their evidence. They have 10 days to appeal.
“We are very disappointed by the verdict. As legal professionals, we believe that the court should be fair to everyone regardless of nationality. The court completely ignored all the evidence of the defense, and most importantly, the guilty plea,” they said in the statement. “This contradicts the existing legal practice. Taking into account the amount of the substance (not to mention the defects of the expertise) and the plea, the verdict is absolutely unreasonable. We will certainly file an appeal.”
Griner “is not doing fine today,” said Blagovolina, a partner at Rybalkin, Gortsunyan, Dyakin and Partners law firm. The defense hopes that Griner will be able to talk to her family next week and that Griner will return to the detention center where she is being held.
The sentence comes against the backdrop of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The US State Department maintains Griner is wrongfully detained and US officials have offered a potential prisoner swap with Russia in an attempt to bring her home safely.
Charge d'Affaires of the US Embassy in Russia, Elizabeth Rood, said the sentence was a “miscarriage of justice.” President Biden said the sentence was “unacceptable.”
“Today, American citizen Brittney 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,” Biden said in a statement.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken criticized Russia's legal system, saying the sentence “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.”
He said the US is working to bring home Griner and Paul Whelan, an American citizen who has been held by Russia for alleged espionage since 2018. “This is an absolute priority of mine and the Department’s,” Blinken said.
Griner's WNBA team, the Phoenix Mercury, was playing the Connecticut Sun on Thursday night. Before the game, the teams held a 42-second moment of silence as players linked arms. Near the end of the tribute, spectators started chanting, “Bring her home! Bring her home!” Griner, a six-time WNBA all-star, wears No. 42 for the Mercury.
Earlier, the Mercury released a statement calling the verdict “a sobering milestone in the 168-day nightmare” of her detention.
“We are inspired every day by BG's strength and we are steadfastly committed to keeping her top-of-mind publicly until she is safely back on American soil. We will not allow her to be forgotten. We are BG,” the statement reads.
In a joint statement, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver criticized the verdict and sentence as “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 said.
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