WNBA star Brittney Griner was convicted of smuggling drugs into Russia and sentenced to nine years in jail on Thursday.
Judge Anna Sotnikova of the Khimki city court delivered the sentence and fined Griner 1 million rubles, or about $16,400. She said she considered Griner’s partial admission of guilt, remorse for the deed, state of health, and charitable activities. Prosecutors had recommended that she be sentenced to nine and a half years in jail.
In an emotional speech before hearing her verdict, Griner apologized and asked for leniency.
“I never meant to hurt anybody, I never meant to put in jeopardy the Russian population, I never meant to break any laws here,” Griner said. “I made an honest mistake and I hope that in your ruling that it doesn’t end my life here. I know everybody keeps talking about political pawn and politics, but I hope that that is far from this courtroom.”
“I want to say again that I had no intent on breaking any Russian laws. I had no intent. I did not conspire or plan to commit this crime,” she added.
Griner was detained at a Moscow airport in February while returning to her Russian basketball team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, after a break for an international competition. She called Yekaterinburg her “second home.”
“I had no idea that the team, the cities, the fans, my teammates would make such a great impression on me over the six and a half years that I spent here. I remember vividly coming out of the gym and all the little girls that were in the stands there waiting on me, and that’s what kept making me come back here,” she said.
Later, as she was being led out of the courtroom in handcuffs, Griner told a group of reporters: “I love my family.”
Minutes after sentencing, President Joe Biden reacted to Griner’s punishment.
“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. It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates. My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible,” he said.
Griner’s lawyers, Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov, released a written statement stating they would appeal the decision and criticized the court for ignoring their evidence.
“We are very disappointed by the verdict. As legal professionals, we believe that the court should be fair to everyone regardless of nationality. The court completely ignored all the evidence of the defense, and most importantly, the guilty plea,” they said in the statement. “This contradicts the existing legal practice. Taking into account the amount of the substance (not to mention the defects of the expertise) and the plea, the verdict is absolutely unreasonable. We will certainly file an appeal.”
Speaking outside the courthouse, Boykov said that the average sentence for this type of crime in Russia is five years, adding that almost a third of those convicted get parole.
The U.S. State Department has classified Griner as “wrongfully detained.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken revealed last week that the Biden administration offered a “substantial proposal” to Russia for the return of Griner and fellow American Paul Whelan, who is also classified as wrongfully detained.
The trade reportedly could be for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer known as the “Merchant of Death,” who is serving a 25-year sentence in the U.S. after being convicted of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organization.
However, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Monday that Russia made a “bad faith” response to the offer while refusing to elaborate.