Russian court jails US basketball player Brittney Griner for nine years on drug charges
Griner sentenced and fined 1m roubles in politically charged verdict that could lead to prisoner swap with the US
A Moscow court has convicted the US basketball player Brittney Griner on drug charges, sentencing her to nine years in prison and a 1m rouble fine in a politically charged verdict that could lead to a prisoner swap with the US.
Griner, a basketball talent who played in Russia during off-seasons from the Phoenix Mercury, was arrested for cannabis possession in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport in February.
Her arrest was just days before Russia invaded Ukraine, launching frantic backdoor negotiations between the US and Russian intelligence services as her trial played out in a small courthouse just outside the Moscow city limits.
Her formal conviction, which was a foregone conclusion, would be a necessary step towards a prisoner exchange. US officials say Russia wants to swap Griner and Paul Whelan, a former US marine arrested on spying charges in 2020, for the convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout.
A handcuffed Griner said “I love my family” as she was led out of a Russian courtroom.
“Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney,” said US President Joe Biden. “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 defence team said they were “disappointed” by the verdict and would appeal.
While she pleaded guilty to the drug charges, the US has classified Griner as “wrongfully detained”, launching a process similar to hostage negotiations with Iran and other countries. A senior US embassy official attended Thursday’s hearing and verdict, where police spetsnaz (special forces) and bomb-sniffing dogs patrolled the hallways.
Prosecutors asked for a nine-and-a-half-year prison sentence for Griner and a hefty fine, nearly the maximum in her case.
In an emotional closing statement on Thursday, Griner apologised to her teammates and told the courtroom that she had made an “honest mistake”, adding “that is why I pled guilty to my charges but I had no intent of breaking the law”.
She has also rejected the political implications of her case, making an emotional appeal directly to the judge, Anna Sotnikova.
“I know everybody keep talking about ‘political pawn’ and ‘politics,’ but I hope that is far from this courtroom,” she said, asking for leniency. In the end, it was not shown.
Prosecutors in the Russian court said Griner’s arrest on drug charges was “fully proven”. Her defence lawyers pointed toward irregularities in the investigation and described the pressures on the basketball star, whom she compared to the sprinter Usain Bolt.
A conviction is usually required in cases that could lead to a prisoner exchange, because it would allow the Kremlin to issue a pardon or reduce a sentence without blatantly interfering in an ongoing trial.
A lawyer for Whelan told the Guardian on Thursday that he was “sure that a trade will eventually be made”, but added that a final agreement did not seem to have been reached. He claimed that the US said that Russia offered a trade for Bout in 2020 shortly after Whelan’s conviction on spying charges.
Russia is said to be seeking the freedom of Bout, who is believed to have armed the Taliban and the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone, Charles Taylor’s regime in Liberia, Unita in Angola, various Congolese factions and Abu Sayyaf, a militant Islamic group in the Philippines.
He was arrested at a luxury hotel in Bangkok in a US sting operation and was sentenced in 2012 to 25 years in prison. His case has become an unlikely cause célèbre among some senior Russian officials.
Russia has already exchanged Trevor Reed, a former marine arrested in Moscow, for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a pilot who was held for nearly a decade in the US on a drug smuggling conviction. The exchange at an airfield in Turkey recalled a cold war thriller, as the two men walked past each other to board planes back to their respective countries.
Griner has also said that she is “terrified” of being kept in Russia “for ever”.
“I never meant to hurt anybody,” Griner said in her closing statement. “I never meant to put in jeopardy the Russian population. I never meant to break any laws here. I made an honest mistake and I hope that in your ruling that it doesn’t end my life here.”