WNBA superstar and political prisoner Brittney Griner was sentenced to nearly a decade in a Russian penal colony on Thursday after being found guilty of what the country said was a criminal attempt to smuggle drugs last spring.
Griner was arrested in March for possession of several vapor cartridges of cannabis, which her lawyers he claimed he had it for medical purposes. Her detention and subsequent trial were largely seen as Russian posturing as it continues its imperialist expansionist invasion of Ukraine in the face of widespread Western condemnation.
In early July, Griner pleaded guilty to possession of cannabis in a Russian court, explaining that she had just packed her bags in a hurry and that there was no “intention” to break the law.
“I want to apologize to my teammates, my club, my fans and the city (of Yekaterinburg) for the mistake I made and the embarrassment I caused them.” Griner said at trial. “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.”
The US State Department has labeled Griner an “unwarranted detainer” and government officials are working to arrange a high-level prisoner exchange with Russia to secure her return. Those efforts have so far failed, though her 9-year prison sentence, coupled with a roughly $17,000 fine, will likely reinvigorate the government’s efforts to bring Griner home from what is widely seen as a punitive political effort on the part of the beleaguered Russian government.
In a sign of how seriously (albeit belatedly) the White House is working on Griner’s case, President Joe Biden issued a statement shortly after the sentencing, reiterating that “this is yet another reminder of what the world already knew: the Russia is unfairly holding Brittney.”
“It’s unacceptable,” Biden continued. “I call on Russia to release her immediately to be with her husband, loved ones, friends and teammates. My government will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every avenue possible to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible.”
Whelan, a former US Marine, was also arrested convicted in 2020 of espionagesomething he himself has denied.
Speaking after Griner’s sentencing, her defense lawyers argued that the Russian court had “completely ignored all the evidence of the defense and most importantly, the admission of guilt”. They vowed to appeal the decision.