Brittney Griner, center for the Phoenix Mercury (WNBA) and the UMMC Ekaterinburg teams, was detained for 24 weeks before she was sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison on Thursday. Griner was arrested in a Russian airport in February 17, 2022 on drug charges. At a Moscow-area airport, Griner was found to be in possession of cannabis vape cartridges.
Griner’s trial took one month to conclude, and the basketball star has been given the maximum sentence for the charges.
Griner told the Russian court that she may have put the cartridges in her bags mistakenly. Griner has a medical marijuana card that is valid in Arizona, her home state. However, in Russia – just as it is in the United States – marijuana is illegal on a federal level.
While the Russian prosecutor asked that Griner be given a maximum sentence, Griner’s attorneys had asked for an acquittal. If an acquittal was not delivered, Griner’s representation asked that she be given leniency in her sentencing.
Griner’s medical marijuana card was provided to her so that she could use cannabis to “cope with injuries sustained over years of competition.”
Griner spoke to the judge prior to her sentencing on Thursday. Griner had previously pled guilty to the charges with the hope of some leniency in her sentencing. Griner had made a statement to the Russian judge before the sentence was handed down in which she told the magistrate that she “never intended to break any laws or hurt anyone.”
Griner also apologized to her Russian teammates on the Ekaterinburg squad. “This is my second home and all I wanted to do was win championships and make them proud. I made an honest mistake and I hope that in your ruling that it doesn’t end my life here.”
Since Griner’s imprisonment, which took place about one week before Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops into neighboring Ukraine to carry out a “special military operation.” Russian troops have now been in Ukraine for over four months with no end to the invasion in sight.
Relations between Russian and American leaders has deteriorated greatly even prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and while President Biden has remarked on Griner’s arrest, her family has asked repeatedly for help in getting Brittany home to the U.S.
The Russian government has inferred that it will carry out a “prisoner swap” if the United States will agree in order for Brittany Griner to be sent back to the United States. However, Russian officials have asked that a Russian arms dealer, Viktor Bout, who has been called the “Merchant of Death” be returned to Russia in exchange for the release of Griner and another American.
Paul Whelan is a Canadian by birth, but he has a citizenship in both the United States and the United Kingdom. He was arrested in Russia in 2018. Whelan was in Russia to attend a wedding, but the Russian Federal Security Service arrested him on charges of espionage. Whelan’s hotel room was searched, and a memory card that was said to contain “a list of employees at a classified security agency.” Whelan was sentenced to sixteen years in prison; at the time, Whelan’s lawyers said that they believed the Russian government was looking to carry out a prisoner swap with the United States then.
President Joe Biden commented on Ms. Griner’s sentencing: “Today, American citizen Brittany Griner received a prison sentence that is one more reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittany. It’s unacceptable.” Biden further elaborated that he wanted to see the release of both Griner and Whelan.
Some American foreign relations experts believe that a prisoner swap, as unappealing as that might be, is the only way to get both Whelan and Griner home. One expert even said that Bout could be tracked so that he did not become active in the same type of criminal activity that landed him in prison.