MOSCOW: A Russian court sentenced US basketball star Brittney Griner to nine years in prison on Thursday after finding her guilty of deliberately bringing cannabis-infused vape cartridges into Russia, a ruling that US President Joe Biden called “unacceptable.”
Griner was escorted out of the courtroom in handcuffs by police after the ruling, turning to reporters and saying: “I love my family.”
Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medallist and a Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) star, was arrested in mid-February as she arrived to play for a Russian side during the WNBA offseason. Her case threw the Texan into the geopolitical maelstrom triggered when President Vladimir Putin sent troops into Ukraine on February 24, propelling U.S.-Russian relations to a new post-Cold War low.
Her sentencing could now pave the way for a US-Russia prisoner swap that would include the 31-year-old athlete and an imprisoned Russian who was once a prolific arms dealer. Griner had admitted having the vape cartridges containing hashish oil but said it was an honest mistake.
Before the verdict, she tearfully pleaded with a Russian judge not to “end her life” with a harsh prison sentence. The court also fined her $16,990.
Biden, under pressure to help free Americans held in Russia, called on Russia to release Griner immediately and said his administration would continue to work for her release.
“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,” Biden said in a statement.
“It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates.”
Griner’s lawyers said they would appeal. Her defence team said the court had ignored all evidence they had presented, as well as Griner’s guilty plea.
“Taking into account the amount of the substance — not to mention the defects of the expertise — and the plea, the verdict is absolutely unreasonable,” her defence team said in a statement.
The Russian prosecutor had called for Griner to be sentenced to 9-1/2 years in prison if she was found guilty of bringing illegal drugs into the country.
Griner was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on February 17 with the cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage. While she pleaded guilty, she said she had neither intended to bring a banned substance to Russia nor to hurt anybody.
“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.