US basketball star Brittney Griner has been convicted in Russia of drug possession and sentenced to nine years in prison following a politically charged trial that came amid soaring tensions between Moscow and Washington over Ukraine.
The 31-year-old, a two-time US Olympic champion who plays for Phoenix Mercury in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), listened with a blank expression as an interpreter translated the verdict by Judge Anna Sotnikova.
The judge also fined her a million rubles (€16,000).
US President Joe Biden denounced the verdict and sentence as “unacceptable”.
“I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates,” he said, adding that he would continue to work to bring home Griner and Paul Whelan, an American imprisoned in Russia on an espionage conviction.
Before the unusually swift verdict, an emotional Griner apologized to her family, teammates and the Russian city of Yekaterinburg, where she plays during 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 in your ruling it does not end my life.”
A conviction is usually a prerequisite to arranging a prisoner exchange and also allows Griner to apply for a presidential pardon.
The disclosure in July that the US government was seeking a prisoner swap involving Griner reflected the growing pressure on the Biden administration to do more to bring her home.
The US state department had earlier declared her to be “wrongfully detained” – a charge Russia has rejected.
Griner, one of the greatest players in WNBA history, has been detained since February 17th after police said they found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage on landing at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. She was returning to Russia, where she has competed since 2014.
When she gave evidence in her trial July 7th, Griner said: “I would like to plead guilty on the charges against me. But I had no intention of breaking any Russian law.” She added that she brought the vape canisters into Russia because she had packed in haste for her flight.
In later evidence, she described a confusing scene while being held at the airport, saying an interpreter provided by authorities translated only a fraction of what was being said to her and that officials told her to sign documents, but “no one explained any of it to me”. She also said she was not informed of her rights.
Her lawyers introduced evidence that Griner was using medicinal cannabis for chronic pain and injuries sustained during her career, and included a letter from her doctor.
She told the court she was aware cannabis oil was outlawed in Russia and had not intended to break the law nor had planned “to smuggle anything into Russia”.
Griner’s slow-moving case and her nearly six months behind bars have raised criticism among her supporters in the US, including her wife Cherelle, that Mr. Biden was not doing enough to win her freedom.
Griner sent a personal appeal to him and more than 1,100 black female leaders urged the administration to “make a deal to get Brittney back home swiftly and safely and to meet with Brittney’s wife Cherelle immediately”.
Mr Biden later called Cherelle Griner “to reassure her that he is working to secure Brittney’s release as soon as possible”, the White House said on July 6th.
Cherelle Griner, who also spoke with vice-president Kamala Harris, later said she was “grateful to both of them for the time they spent with me and for the commitment they expressed to getting BG home”.
On July 27th, US secretary of state Antony Blinken said Washington had offered a deal to Russia aimed at bringing home Griner and Mr Whelan, in a sharp reversal of previous policy.
Details were not announced but a source said the US offered to trade convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for Mr Whelan and Griner.
Russian media have speculated repeatedly that Griner could be swapped for Bout, nicknamed “the Merchant of Death”, who is serving a 25-year sentence in the US after being convicted of conspiracy to kill US citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organization.
Russia has agitated for his release for years. – AP