Brittney Griner, WNBA star Sentenced to 9 years on drug charges

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Brittney Griner

MOSCOW — A Russian court has found guilty on drug smuggling and possession charges. After a month-long trial and nearly six months after the basketball star was detained at an airport in the Moscow region with cannabis vape cartridges in her luggage, the widely anticipated verdict was announced.

 

The judge gave Griner a nine-year prison term. The Russian prosecution had asked for a sentence of nine years and six months in a penal colony because her charges carried a maximum sentence of ten years.

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Given that Russian criminal courts have a reported 99 percent conviction rate, the trial’s verdict was not particularly surprising. But it seems as though politics will now decide Griner’s fate.

 

Under pressure from the public to secure her release, the Biden administration has tried to negotiate with Russia to free both her and another imprisoned American, Paul Whelan. Any potential agreement, including a rumoured prisoner swap in which the U.S. would free notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, would have to wait until the court’s decision, according to Russia.

President Biden has reacted to the sentenced of  Brittney Griner .

President Biden referred to Griner’s sentence as “one more reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney” in a statement issued shortly after the verdict.

 

It’s unacceptable, he continued, and I urge Russia to free her right away so she can be with her wife, family, friends, and teammates. The Whelans will be brought home as soon as possible in safety, and my administration will keep working tirelessly to make that happen.

 

In a statement of his own, Secretary of State Antony Blinken reaffirmed that commitment, saying the court’s ruling “puts a spotlight on our significant concerns with Russia’s legal system and the Russian government’s use of wrongful detentions to advance its own agenda, using individuals as political pawns.”

 

Blinken continued, “Russia, and any nation engaging in wrongful detention, represents a threat to the safety of everyone working, living, and travelling abroad. “Everywhere, the United States opposes this practise.

 

Lindsay Kagawa Colas, Griner’s agent, expressed her gratitude for the efforts being made by the US to secure the player’s release in a tweet.

 

Brittney Griner was sentenced today, and Colas wrote that it “proves what we have known all along, that Brittney is being used as a political pawn. Brittney’s sentencing was severe by Russian legal standards.”

 

Brittney Griner admitted to making ‘an honest mistake’

Earlier on Thursday, during closing arguments, Griner’s defence attorney demanded her innocence or that the court be lenient in any punishment it imposed. The 31-year-old also spoke for herself.

 

I sincerely apologise for my error, and I sincerely hope that your choice won’t mean the end of my existence here, Brittney Griner said.

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The Olympian and NBA champion claims it was an accident that she placed the marijuana in her bag. According to Griner’s defence team, she has a medical marijuana card in Arizona that she uses to treat the injuries she has racked up over the course of her career. But it is always illegal to possess cannabis for personal use in Russia, just like it is under federal law in the US.

 

Griner’s defence attorneys argued in favour of her acquittal or, at the very least, a light sentence during their closing arguments by highlighting Griner’s contributions to the growth of Russian women’s basketball and pointing out irregularities in her arrest and detention, such as a dearth of access to qualified translators.

 

The basketball player’s attorneys also emphasised that despite never failing a drug test, he had a prescription for medical marijuana from a U.S. doctor to treat chronic pain in the offseason.

 

Maria Blagovolina, a defence attorney, questioned, “What does this show?” It proves that Brittney Griner only smoked marijuana at home and had no intention of bringing it into Russia.

Brittney Griner reiterated that she never intended to break any laws or cause harm to anyone in her closing argument to the judge.

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As she added that “this is my second home and all I wanted to do was win championships and make them proud,” she expressed her regret to her Russian teammates for any harm she may have caused.

Brittney Griner ordeal began just before Russia invaded Ukraine.

One week before Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, Griner was detained in February. Her detention quickly gave rise to rumours that Putin’s administration intended to use her as leverage against the United States. In her closing remarks to the judge on Thursday, Griner made a reference to that.

 

She said, “I know that politics and political pawns are constantly being discussed, but I hope that is far from this courtroom.

Quick Summary of Brittney Griner deal with Russian Federation.

  • Feb. 17: Griner is detained at Sheremetyevo International Airport outside Moscow
  • May 3: The U.S. State Department declares Griner wrongfully detained
  • May 28: U.S. Ambassador to Russia John J. Sullivan calls Griner a “bargaining chip” amid talk of a possible prisoner exchange
  • July 1: Prosecutors unseal their case in court as the trial begins
  • July 7: Griner pleads guilty to drug charges as talk of a prisoner swap grows
  • July 27: Griner testifies, saying she inadvertently brought the cannabis to Russia
  • July 27: The U.S. says it offered Russia a deal to free Griner and another jailed American, Paul Whelan
  • Aug. 4: Closing arguments begin

Athletes and activists at home are calling for her release.

Star centre for the Phoenix Mercury is Brittney Griner. However, she participates in foreign leagues during the U.S. league’s offseason, where she earns significantly more money than she does in the WNBA. She has recently been a member of the Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg, which is run by oligarch Iskander Makhmudov. The group has a history of association with Griner’s American club.

Griner was detained as she travelled from the US to rejoin her Russian team.

In a joint statement released on Thursday, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert described the verdict and sentence as “unjustified and unfortunate, but not unexpected.”

“The WNBA and NBA’s commitment to her safe return has not wavered,” they continued. “It is our hope that we are approaching the conclusion of this process to finally bring BG home to the United States.”

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The group working to free Griner has expanded beyond just her basketball teammates and supporters. Numerous civil rights organisations, including the National Organization for Women, the Human Rights Campaign, and the National LGBTQ Task Force, wrote a letter to President Biden this summer pleading with him to handle her case urgently.

Reporting from Russia was Maynes. From Washington, D.C., Chappell and Treisman provided updates.

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