Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) star Brittney Griner on Thursday was sentenced to nine years in a Russian penal colony for cannabis possession, the New York Times reports. Griner, 31, pleaded guilty to the charges in July. The court also fined her 1 million rubles, or about $16,400.
Last month U.S. officials indicated they had offered to swap Griner and Paul Whelan, who is accused of espionage, for Viktor Bout, a Russian who was convicted of arms dealing in the U.S. in 2011 and is serving a 25-year sentence in the U.S. Russian officials have said there would be no agreement on a potential prisoner swap until after Griner was sentenced.
In a statement following the sentencing, President Joe Biden (D) called her detention in Russia “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. … 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.” — Biden in a statement
Griner’s defense team has 10 days to appeal the decision, CNN reports, and her attorneys have said they plan to take that route.
Speaking to the court, Griner said she had “no intent to break Russian law” and has previously maintained that she accidentally brought the vape pens into the country accidentally while quickly packing her luggage.
“I want the court to understand that it was an honest mistake that I made while rushing and in stress trying to recover post-Covid and just trying to get back to my team,” Griner said according to the Times. “…I made an honest mistake, and I hope that in your ruling that it doesn’t end my life here.”
Her attorneys had entered into evidence her medical cannabis recommendation from an Arizona physician; however, in Russia – like U.S. federal law – cannabis is outlawed for any purpose.
Speaking to reporters following the sentencing, Charge d’Affaires of the U.S. embassy in Russia, Elizabeth Rood, said “nothing” that occurred in court changes the U.S. State Department’s determination that Griner is “wrongfully detained.”
In a statement, the Phoenix Mercury, Griner’s WNBA team, called the sentence a “sobering milestone in the 168-day nightmare being endured by our sister, BG.”
“We are steadfastly committed to keeping her top-of-mind publicly until she is safely back on American soil,” the team said in a statement.
In a joint statement, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert and National Basketball Association Commissioner Adam Silver called the verdict and sentencing “unjustified and unfortunate but not unexpected.”
“The WNBA and NBA’s commitment to her safe return has not wavered,” the statement says, “and it is our hope that we are near the end of this process of finally bringing BG home to the United States.”