The United States basketball star by name Brittney Griner was convicted on Thursday in Russia of drug possession and smuggling and was sentenced to nine years behind bars in a politically charged case that could lead to a high-stakes prisoner exchange between Washington and Moscow.
The 31-year-old Griner who is a two-time United States Olympic champion and an eight-time all-star with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, listened with a blank expression as an interpreter translated the verdict by Judge Anna Sotnikova, but her lawyers said later she was “very upset.” Griner also was fined 1 million rubles (about $16,700).
United States President Joe Biden denounced as “unacceptable” the verdict and sentence, which came amid soaring tensions between the United States and Russia over Ukraine.
“I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates,” Biden said, adding that he would continue to work to bring home Griner and Paul Whelan, an American imprisoned in Russia on an espionage conviction.
Griner, recognized as one of the greatest players in WNBA history, has been detained since Feb. 17 after police said they found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage upon landing at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. She was returning to Russia, where she has competed since 2014.
As she was led out of court, Griner said: “I love my family.”
The nine-year sentence was close to the maximum of 10 years that Griner had faced under the charges. Most Russians possessing small quantities of drugs get at most five years in prison, lawyers said.
Defence attorney Maria Blagovolina told reporters later that Griner was “very upset, very stressed. She can hardly talk. It’s a difficult time for her.”
Before the unusually swift verdict was reached, an emotional Griner apologized to her family, teammates and the Russian city of Yekaterinburg, where she plays in the WNBA offseason, “for my mistake that I made and the embarrassment that I brought on them.”
With her voice cracking, she added: “I hope your ruling does not end my life.”
Griner is 6 feet and 9 inches tall, she has 12 of the 15 regular season dunks in WNBA history and set the single-year record for blocks with 129 in 2014. She led the league in scoring twice. She was a two-time Associated Press college basketball player of the year and led Baylor to a 40-0 season and the 2012 NCAA title. She was the No. 1 pick by Phoenix in the 2013 draft.
The commissioners of the WNBA and NBA called the trial’s outcome “unjustified and unfortunate, but not unexpected and Brittney Griner remains wrongly detained. … we hope that we are near the end of this process of finally bringing BG home to the United States.”