Brittney Griner was sentenced to nine years in a penal colony after being found guilty of drug possession and smuggling with criminal intent by a Russian court.
Ms. Griner was also fined one million rubles (about $16,300) by the court.
Her defense team criticized the verdict, calling it “absolutely absurd”, adding that they would “definitely appeal”. The New York Times mentionted.
President Joe Biden issued a statement about the verdict, saying Ms. Griner “received a prison sentence that is yet another reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongfully holding Brittney.”
“It is unacceptable and I call on Russia to release her immediately to be with her wife, loved ones, friends and teammates. My government will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible,” he added.
Attorney General Merrick Garland said that “Ms. Griner was unlawfully detained, but beyond that I really cannot comment.”
Prosecutors had argued for a nine-and-a-half-year sentence during closing arguments amid concerns he is being used as a political pawn as Russia struggles under sweeping Western sanctions in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The guilty verdict was expected as few defendants have been acquitted in the Russian justice system, according to The times.
Ms. Griner’s future will now be decided in negotiations between Russian and American diplomats. The US has gone ahead with a prisoner swap – Ms Griner and Mr Whelan, a former Marine jailed in Russia on espionage charges, for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout – the so-called “Death Merchant” who is serving a 25 years. in the USA.
The Pheonix Mercury center has been detained since February 17, when she was arrested at Moscow airport on her way to play for her Russian team Yekaterinburg, east of the Urals. Russian officials said a verdict needed to be issued before a possible exchange could take place. US officials said he was wrongfully detained.
The top US and Russian diplomats, Foreign Secretary Antony Blinken and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, discussed the issue last week – their first conversation since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Nothing was agreed upon during the call, according to reports.
Ms Griner became emotional in court on Thursday before the verdict was handed down, apologizing to her team and family for the case which has reached the highest levels of US and Russian diplomacy.
Prosecutors had asked for a nine-and-a-half-year sentence for the Pheonix Mercury star who was in Russia playing for Yekaterinburg when she was arrested at a Moscow airport for drug possession.
Before the verdict was handed down, Ms Griner said she had not intended to break the law when she brought vapor cartridges on her flight.
“I want to apologize to my teammates, my team, my fans and the city [Yekaterinburg] for the mistake I made and the embarrassment I caused them,” Ms. Griner said, according to the Associated Press. “I also want to apologize to my parents, my siblings, the Phoenix Mercury organization back home, the amazing women of the WNBA and my amazing husband back home.”
“I made an honest mistake and I hope your decision will not end my life,” he added.
Ms. Griner said Yekaterinburg had become a “second home” for her.
“I had no idea that the team, the cities, the fans, my teammates would make such an impression on me in the six and a half years I’ve spent here,” he told the court. “I vividly remember walking out of the gym and all the little girls in the stands there waiting for me, and that’s what made me come back here.”
Griner’s lawyers have presented character witnesses from her Russian team she played for during the WNBA offseason, as well as written testimony from the doctor who issued the prescription for cannabis to treat the pain.
Ms. Blagovolina argued that Ms. Griner should be acquitted, citing her lack of criminal record and because of her work in “developing Russian basketball.”
Another lawyer defending Griner, Alexander Boykov, spoke of her role in winning multiple championships with the Yekaterinburg team, adding that she is loved by her teammates, many of whom look up to her.
Mr Boykov told the court that Ms Griner’s conviction would hamper Russia’s efforts to improve their national sports and he would argue with Moscow that politics should be taken out of sport.
The lawyer noted that after her arrest, Ms. Griner won the favor of guards and other inmates, with some shouting “Brittney, everything’s going to be okay!” on her prison walks.
Ms Blagovolina argued before the verdict that “there should be a lighter sentence”.
Ms Griner told the court before sentencing on Thursday that her parents raised her to “take charge of yourself”.
“That’s why I pleaded guilty to my charges – I understand everything that has been said against me in the charges against me, but I had no intention of violating Russian law,” he said, according to The times. “I want the court to understand that it was an honest mistake that I made while I was in a hurry and stressed trying to recover from Covid and just trying to get back to my team.”