A Russian court sentenced U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner to nine years in prison on Thursday after finding her guilty of deliberately bringing cannabis-infused vape cartridges into Russia, a ruling that U.S. President Joe Biden called “unacceptable.”
Griner was escorted out of the courtroom in handcuffs by police after the ruling, turning to reporters and saying: “I love my family”.
Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medallist and Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) star, was arrested in mid-February as she arrived to play for a Russian side during the WNBA offseason. Her case threw the Texan into the geopolitical maelstrom triggered when President Vladimir Putin sent troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24, propelling U.S.-Russian relations to a new post-Cold War low.
Her sentencing could now pave the way for a U.S.-Russia prisoner swap that would include the 31-year-old athlete and an imprisoned Russian who was once a prolific arms dealer.
Griner had admitted having the vape cartridges containing hashish oil but said she had made an honest mistake by inadvertently packing them.
Before the verdict, she tearfully pleaded with a Russian judge not to “end her life” with a harsh prison sentence. The court also fined her 1 million roubles ($16,990).
Biden, under pressure to bring home Americans held in Russia, called on Russia to free Griner immediately and said his administration would continue to work for her release.
“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,” he said in a statement.
“It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates.”
National security spokesperson John Kirby later on Thursday urged Russia to accept a “serious proposal” Washington made weeks ago for Griner’s release.
Griner’s lawyers said they would appeal a verdict they said was “absolutely unreasonable”. Her defence team said the court had ignored all evidence they had presented, as well as Griner’s guilty plea.
“She is very upset, very stressed,” said Maria Blagovolina, partner at Rybalkin Gortsunyan Dyakin and Partners, after the hearing. “She can hardly talk. It’s a difficult time for her.”
The Russian prosecutor had called for Griner to be sentenced to 9-1/2 years prison if she was found guilty of bringing illegal drugs into the country.