A Russian court on Thursday sentenced American basketball star Brittney Griner to nine years in prison on drugs charges, after finding her guilty of narcotics possession and smuggling for bringing cannabis-infused vape cartridges into Russia.
She was also fined 1 million roubles ($16,000).
After the sentencing, Griner appeared sad and stony-faced and said she understood the sentence. Her defense team said they will appeal the ruling.
A Russian state prosecutor urged the judge to sentence Griner to 9.5 years in jail.
President Joe Biden, whose administration reportedly has been trying to get Griner released by the Russian regime, said that the sentence is “unacceptable.”
“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,” he said in a statement.
The president committed to continuing the efforts of bringing Griner and Paul Whelan—a Canadian and U.S. dual citizen who was arrested in 2018 and accused of spying—home safely as soon as possible.
Earlier in the session, with a conviction all but certain, an emotional Griner made a final appeal to the court for leniency. She said she made an “honest mistake” and had no intention to break the law by bringing vape cartridges with cannabis oil when she flew to Moscow in February to play basketball in the city of Yekaterinburg.
“I made an honest mistake and I hope that in your ruling, that it doesn’t end my life here,” Griner said in court on Thursday before breaking down in tears.
“I want to apologize to my teammates, my club, my fans, and the city of (Yekaterinburg) for my mistake that I made and the embarrassment that I brought on them,” Griner said, her voice cracking. “I want to also apologize to my parents, my siblings, the Phoenix Mercury organization back at home, the amazing women of the WNBA, and my amazing spouse back at home.”
Griner said Yekaterinburg, a city east of the Ural Mountains, had become 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 6 1/2 years that I spent here,” she said. “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.”
Prosecutor Nikolai Vlasenko insisted that Griner packed the cannabis oil deliberately.
Lawyers for the Phoenix Mercury center and two-time Olympic gold medalist have sought to bolster Griner’s contention that she had no criminal intent and that the canisters ended up in her luggage by mistake. They presented character witnesses from the Yekaterinburg team that she plays for in the WNBA offseason and written testimony from a doctor who said he prescribed her cannabis for pain treatment from injuries sustained in her basketball career.
Her lawyer, Maria Blagovolina, argued that Griner used the cannabis only in Arizona, where medical marijuana is legal.
She emphasized that Griner was packing in haste after a grueling flight and suffering from the consequences of COVID-19. Blagovolina also pointed out that the analysis of cannabis found in Griner’s possession was flawed and violated legal procedures.
Blagovolina asked the court to acquit Griner, noting that she had no past criminal record and hailing her role in “the development of Russian basketball.”
Another defense attorney, Alexander Boykov, emphasized Griner’s role in taking her Yekaterinburg team to win multiple championships, noting that she was loved and admired by her teammates. He told the judge that a conviction would undermine Russia’s efforts to develop national sports and make Moscow’s call to depoliticize sports sound shallow.
Before her trial began in July, the State Department designated her as “wrongfully detained,” moving her case under the supervision of its special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, effectively the government’s chief hostage negotiator.
Then last week, in an extraordinary move, Blinken spoke to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, urging him to accept a deal under which Griner and Whelan would go free.
The Lavrov-Blinken call marked the highest-level known contact between Washington and Moscow since Russia sent troops into Ukraine more than five months ago. The direct outreach over Griner is at odds with U.S. efforts to isolate the Kremlin.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to the report.
From The Epoch Times