A Russian court has sentenced queer two-time Olympic gold medallist Brittney Griner to nine years in prison on drug charges.
Out 31-year-old basketball player Brittney Griner, who plays for Phoenix Mercury, has been incarcerated in Russia since February when she was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport for being in possession of a small amount (less than a gram in two vape cartridges) of cannabis oil.
Griner, 31, admitted possessing cannabis oil, pleading guilty at her trial in July, but told the court she made an “honest mistake”.
“I’d like to plead guilty, your honor. But there was no intent. I didn’t want to break the law,” she told the court.
Today (August 4) a Russian court convicted the American athlete of smuggling and possessing narcotics, and handed her close to the maximum sentence – which is ten years – recommended by prosecutors.
As Griner was being led out of the courtroom in handcuffs, Reuters quoted her as saying: “I love my family.”
Griner is reported to have reacted to the sentencing, which included a fine of 1 million roubles (£13,435/ $16,351), with little emotion and listened to the verdict with a blank stare on her face.
US President Joe Biden called the sentencing “unacceptable”.
While US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said: “Russia, and any country engaging in wrongful detention, represents a threat to the safety of everyone travelling, working, and living abroad.”
It is unclear how much time Griner, who was detained before Russia went to war with Ukraine, will actually serve behind bars, as the US and Russia have been negotiating a potential prisoner trade that might help secure her freedom.
It is not, at the time of writing, known whether that potential remedy is now off the table or not, but reports say her sentencing could now pave the way for a U.S.-Russia prisoner trade.
We previously shared reports that the Biden administration had proposed trading Griner, along with detained US citizen and former marine Paul Whelan, for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who has served 11 years of a 25-year sentence in the U.S.
Whelan was a corporate security director who was arrested in 2018 in Russia and is serving a 16-year sentence for allegedly spying.
Earlier this week, Griner sent a hand written letter to US President Joe Biden, saying “please don’t forget about me”
Adding, “I miss my wife! I miss my family! I miss my teammates! It kills me to know they are suffering so much right now. I am grateful for whatever you can do at this moment to get me home,” Griner wrote.
Ahead of the verdict, she tearfully pleaded with a Russian judge not to “end her life” with a harsh prison sentence.
Reuters reported that Griner’s statement to the Russian court on Thursday included her saying:
“My parents taught me two important things: one, take ownership of your responsibilities and two, work hard for everything that you have. That’s why I pled guilty to my charges. I understand everything that has been said against me, the charges that are against me, and that is why I pled guilty. But I had no intent to break any Russian laws”
“I want the court to understand that this was an honest mistake that I made while rushing, under stress, trying to recover from COVID and just trying to get back to my team.”
“I know everybody keeps talking about political pawn and politics, but I hope that is far from this courtroom.”
“I made an honest mistake and I hope that in your ruling, that it doesn’t end my life here.”
“I want to say again that I had no intent on breaking any Russians laws. I had no intent, I did not conspire or plan to commit this crime.”