A Russian judge gave WNBA star Brittney Griner a harsh 912-year prison sentence on Thursday. The judge rejected Griner’s request for mercy and her apology for making “an honest mistake” by bringing less than a gram of cannabis oil into Russia back in February. On top of that, she also received a one-million-ruble fine.
This action might fuel the anger of the people who adore Griner. They perceive her as being held hostage by the authoritarian regime in Russia as a political pawn. It will pressure the Biden Administration to negotiate a prisoner exchange with Moscow to bring her back home. Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, will now decide whether or not to approve any prisoner exchanges, and his decision is final.
Last month, Griner admitted bringing vape cartridges containing cannabis oil into the country. According to the prosecution, the 0.702 grams of marijuana discovered in her luggage after she landed at Sheremetyevo International Airport was a “significant amount.”
Before being sentenced, Griner said she never intended to violate Russian law or hurt anyone in Russia. She said that “she made an honest mistake under stress.” She admitted that she was in a hurry to catch her flight and was unaware that the vape cartridges were in her luggage.
“I grew up in a normal household in Houston, Texas, with my siblings and my mom and my dad. My mom stayed home to take care of my sister and me, and my father went to work and provided for our family,” she told the judge. “My parents taught me two things: One is to take ownership of your responsibilities, and two, to work hard for everything you have.”
During the WNBA offseason, Griner competes for UMMC Ekaterinburg, which she refers to as her “second home.” She claimed that the companionship she experienced there with her teammates and the enthusiasm of her supporters, particularly the young girls who would gather outside the team’s locker rooms to welcome her, moved her. “That’s why I kept coming back.”
She apologized for her actions to her Russian and American teams as well as her parents and spouse. Although she acknowledged being referred to as “a political pawn,” she distanced herself from commenting.
“I never meant to hurt anybody, to put in jeopardy the Russian population, or violate any Russian laws,” she said.
Griner listened to the verdict through an interpreter as the judge read the ruling. After considering the six months she had already spent incarcerated, the judge gave her eight years on one count and 18 months on another.
After the hearing, Griner remained silent to reporters but said, “I love my family,” as she was led in handcuffs from the courtroom. Meanwhile, her attorney criticized the ruling as “absolutely unreasonable,” faulting the court for having “completely ignored all the evidence of the defense and, most importantly, the guilty plea.”
Meanwhile, the White House reacted quickly. “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,” President Biden told the media. “It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates.”
On top of that, Biden promised that his administration would “continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue” to bring Griner and former security consultant Paul Whelan back to the United States. Whelan was found guilty of spying in 2020 and is currently serving a 16-year sentence of hard labor, but he claims he was framed.
Despite Griner’s guilty plea, Alexander Boikov, a member of her legal team, had previously told the judge that Griner deserved to be freed because the prosecution had been unable to establish criminal intent. He also claimed that her rights were violated during the investigation and legal proceedings. But the judge said that she didn’t find the defendants’ arguments to be substantial.
“We know that in Russia, the laws regarding drugs are stringent,” Boikov said, “but Russia also cares about its prestige in sports.” He continued, “She had many offers but, for some reason, chose cold Yekaterinburg, knowing how warmly she would be received there.”
Late last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Sergei Lavrov of Russia, pleading with him to agree to a deal involving Griner and Whelan. Although the United States hasn’t confirmed the exchange of Russian Viktor Bout, an arms dealer apprehended in 2008 during a U.S. sting operation in Thailand, it is anticipated that Russia could ask for him as, in the past, they have consistently tried to release him.
Blinken said, “Further compounds the injustice of her wrongful detention. This step 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 added, “Securing Griner and Whelan is an absolute priority of mine and the State Department.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. National Security Council spokesman, John Kirby, said, “We’ve made a serious proposal, made a serious offer,” Kirby said. “And we urge the Russians to take that offer because it was done with sincerity, and we know we can back it up.”