On Thursday, a Russian court found WNBA star Brittney Griner guilty of drug smuggling and possession and sentenced her to 9 years in prison in a case involving cannabis oil discovered in her luggage earlier this year.
The verdict was delivered following the conclusion of closing arguments in Griner’s trial at a court near Moscow. She has been imprisoned in Russia for nearly six months after being apprehended at Moscow’s airport in February with two vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her bags.
Griner, 31, faced a total of ten years in prison if he didn’t plead guilty to the charges last month in exchange for leniency from the court. Even if a defendant pleads guilty, criminal trials take place in court in Russia.
Cannabis is illegal in Russia, but Griner’s attorneys claim she has a valid medical prescription and did not pack the cartridges on purpose.
The court rejected those arguments in its decision on Thursday, sentencing her to nine years in a Russian penal colony and a fine of 9 million rubles, or about $150,000.
Prosecutors had asked for a 9 1/2-year prison sentence for Griner in their arguments. Many consider the nine-year sentence to be excessive for Griner’s possession of less than 2 grams of cannabis oil.
Last week, the two-time Olympic gold medalist testified in her own defense, saying she packed the vape cartridges by accident and had no “intention” of breaking Russian law.
The Russian court ruled on Thursday that Griner did, in fact, intend to smuggle cannabis.
Griner’s attorneys expressed disappointment with the verdict, and US President Joe Biden stated that he is doing everything in his power to secure her release.
“Brittney Griner received a prison sentence that serves as yet another reminder of what the rest of the world already knows: Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney,” Biden said in a statement.
“My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to return Brittney and [imprisoned former US Marine] Paul Whelan safely home as soon as possible.”
Griner’s attorneys called the verdict “absolutely unreasonable” and promised to file an appeal on his behalf. According to The New York Times, they emphasized that the Russian court “completely ignored all of the defense evidence, and most importantly, the guilty plea.”
Early this week, a defense expert chemist testified that Russia had violated its own laws during an examination of the banned substance Griner had. Griner’s defense team also claimed that Russia’s method of measuring the substance was flawed.
Griner’s conviction in the case was thought to be almost certain because nearly all defendants in Russia are convicted during trial. Her conviction fueled calls for Biden to secure her release.
Last week, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken stated that “a substantial offer” for Griner’s release had been made, and that he had also pressed Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to release Whelan, who has been imprisoned in Russia since 2018 on an espionage conviction.
Whelan’s name has surfaced as part of a possible prisoner swap in which he and Griner would be released in exchange for the United States releasing convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. Russian officials confirmed this week that the talks are still ongoing, but that “a concrete result” is still awaited.
Experts on Russian law say that before Russian officials consider a prisoner swap, the entire legal process must be completed, with Griner admitting guilt, being convicted, and sentenced.
Some of Griner’s supporters believe she is being used as political leverage by Russia in its conflict with Ukraine. While the US State Department has declared Griner to be “wrongfully detained,” family members have urged the Biden administration to take stronger measures to free her.
Meanwhile, Whelan’s family expressed cautious optimism that the imprisoned Marine would be released as part of Griner’s case.