Britney Griner was sentenced to nine years in prison by a Russian court on Thursday, bringing her case to a close and allowing negotiations for a prisoner swap to accelerate.
The player appeared in court on Feb. 17 for bringing cannabis into the country. She expected a harsh sentence, sources close to the player said. However, she and her supporters also knew Russia would not move forward with a trade before her trial ended. So a guilty verdict was a foregone conclusion, although the case continued under Russian law.
At Griner’s sentencing, Judge Anna Sotnikova said she had found that Griner intentionally broke the law and fined her 1 million rubles ($16,700). Since her February arrest will contribute to her sentence, Sotnikova said, Griner’s time in custody will apply.
Her reaction to the verdict was one of little emotion as she listened to the judgment with a blank stare on her face.
On her way out of court, Griner said: “I love my family.”
As a result, Griner’s nine-year sentence was close to the maximum 10-year sentence that she faced, and prosecutors had requested a 912-year sentence.
The defense lawyers for Griner said they would appeal. Griner’s defense team argued that the court ignored all the evidence presented by the prosecution and Griner’s guilty plea in sentencing.
Maria Blagovolina, Griner’s defense attorney, described Griner as “very upset, very stressed. She can hardly talk. It’s a difficult time for her.”
Under Russian law, Griner has ten days to appeal, and her lawyers said she would appeal next week in a Moscow regional court. After that, if Griner could seek a pardon from Russian President Vladimir Putin, Blagovolina said they would consider every possibility. Still, the lawyers said they were not part of any discussions about a prisoner swap.
President Biden called for Griner’s release following the verdict, referring to her as wrongfully imprisoned — a term the federal government has used since May — and reached out to her.
“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,” Biden stated. “It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates.”
After the verdict cleared in court, U.S. Resident Charge Elizabeth Rood called the ruling “a miscarriage of justice.”
In a joint statement, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert and NBA commissioner Adam Silver called Thursday’s verdict and sentencing “unjustified and unfortunate.” At the same time, Griner’s WNBA team also tweeted a message of sympathy.
“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,” Engelbert and Silver said.
Lindsay Kagawa Colas, Griner’s agent, tweeted that the sentence “was severe by Russian legal standards and went to prove what we have known all along that Brittney is being used as a political pawn.” Moreover, she supported the Biden administration’s efforts “to get a deal done.”
Last week, U.S. officials said they had offered a deal for Griner’s return, and sources have expressed the agreement would trade convicted. American Paul Whelan and Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for Griner and Whelan, who has been in Russian custody since he was taken into custody on spying charges in December last year.
It was Griner’s strategy to treat the trial as a legitimate proceeding throughout, knowing that she considered a guilty verdict a foregone conclusion and that any deal to send her home would require an admission of guilt.
After her trial and before her sentencing on Thursday, Ms. Griner said she made “an honest mistake” and talked about the sense of responsibility she learned from her parents growing up in Houston.
“That’s why I pled guilty to my charges. I understand everything that’s being said against me, the charges that are against me, and that is why I pled guilty,” Griner told the judge through an interpreter in her defendant’s cage. “But I had no intent to break any Russian laws.”
She apologized to her teammates, fans, and the city of Ekaterinburg, the city where she has played during the WNBA offseason ever since.
“I never meant to hurt anybody. I never meant to put in jeopardy the Russian population. I never meant to break any laws here,” the woman said. “I made an honest mistake, and I hope that in your ruling, that doesn’t end my life here.”
She discussed the political reality of her detention: “I know that everybody keeps talking about ‘political pawn’ and ‘politics,’ but I hope that is far from this courtroom.”
Attorney Griner hoped for leniency; however, in the end, the length of the sentence is merely a formality negotiation for her release.
As well as the Kremlin’s top spokesperson, the deputy foreign minister had insisted that, under Russian law, there had been no agreement before the court sentenced her.
The legal case of Griner is rushed compared to other Americans detained in Russia.
For example, the pre-trial detention period for Whelan concluded in June 2020. American citizen Trevor Reed was arrested in August 2019 and convicted on July 10, 2020. He came home this April after the countries agreed to swap prisoners after Reed was reported to be in poor health.
Reed’s release was the first sign to Griner’s supporters that a diplomatic channel was open between the two countries after Russia invaded Ukraine earlier this year.
Brittney Griner is doomed for nine years in a Russian prison.