Basketball star Brittney Griner sentenced to nine years on drug charges in Russia

Brittney Griner looks out of a jail cell

Brittney Griner has been sentenced to nine years in a penal colony by a Russian court for attempting to smuggle illegal drugs with criminal intent.

The queer American basketball star was detained in an airport near Moscow in February when security found two vape cartridges of hashish oil in her luggage.

Judge Anna Sotnikova of the Khimki Court handed down the largely expected verdict on Thursday (4 August). She also issued the two-time Olympic medal winner with a fine of one million rubles.

Sotnikova said the court did take into account Griner’s partial admission of guilt, remorse for the deed, state of health and charitable activities.

But Griner’s lawyers blasted the decision in a 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,” they said.

Maria Blagovolina, a partner at Rybalkin Gortsunyan Dyakin, and Alexander Boykov, of Moscow Legal Center, said the court “completely ignored all the evidence of the defence, and most importantly, the guilty plea”.

From the onset, Griner’s lawyers expressed little hope of Griner being acquitted, something Russia’s court system rarely sees. Instead, they hoped to soften the sentencing by having Griner plead guilty.

It did not work. The hefty sentence reignited calls for the Joe Biden administration to do more to secure Griner’s freedom, with the White House offering a deal to exchange convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for Griner’s release.

“Secretary of state Blinken, president Biden’s national security team and the entire American government remain committed to bringing Ms Griner home safely to her family and friends,” said Elizabeth Rood, the deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Moscow.

She said outside the court that Griner’s conviction and sentencing were a “miscarriage of justice”.

Women’s National Basketball Players Association (WNBA) executive director Terri Jackson said as much as she “trusts” Griner’s legal team to appeal, “at the same time, we need this administration to keep pressing forward”.

She had stern words for Blinken, who is helming the White House’s efforts to free Griner. He had discussed Griner during a phone call with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in July.

“You need no formal meeting,” Jackson continued. “This is critically important to BG, to her family, to our country. We need a win. And we’re counting on you to have that conversation, and begin to put these wheels in motion.”

Griner’s fellow WNBA players also posted messages of support for her on Twitter.

Griner’s sentencing brought to an end a highly-watched and tense trial that activists say made her nothing more than a bargaining chip amid a standoff between the US and Russia over the Ukrainian war.

“Over the past several months, the world has watched with growing concern as Brittney Griner – an American hero who is so much more than a WNBA superstar and Olympian – continues to be unlawfully detained in Russia. We join with so many of Brittney’s loved ones – her friends, teammates, and family – in sending her support as she endures this unimaginable hardship, so far from home,” said the Human Rights Campaign in a statement.

“Today’s harsh sentencing is merely the latest example of how she is being used as a political pawn – and it has to stop. It is long past time that we bring Brittney home and we support the Biden administration’s efforts to do so.”

Brittney Griner was arrested at Sheremetyevo International Airport on 17 February on her way to Yekaterinburg, where she was set to play for a local team.

Griner’s attorneys argued in court that after custom personnel took her aside when they found the vape cartridges, Griner’s detention was mishandled by officials. She neither knew what was going on nor was read her rights until a lawyer came to her some 16 hours later.

Officials made her sign documents she did not fully understand, Griner testified in court, and she had to use Google Translate on her mobile phone to interpret them before her phone was confiscated.

Before the verdict, Griner pleaded for leniency during an impassioned speech to the court.

“I never meant to hurt anybody, I never meant to put in jeopardy the Russian population, I never meant to break any laws here,” she 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.”