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Russia sentences US basketball star Brittney Griner to 9 years prison

The United States' Brittney Griner (15) shoots over Japan's Maki Takada (8) during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics Women's Basketball Final at Saitama Super Arena on Aug. 8, 2021, in Saitama, Japan. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
August 04, 2022

A Russian court sentenced U.S. basketballer and two-time Olympic medalist Brittney Griner to nine years in prison on Thursday on drug smuggling charges.

Griner has been detained in Russia since February after Russian authorities reportedly found cannabis oil in her luggage. The U.S. State Department considers Griner to have been wrongfully detained abroad.

Griner — who plays for the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) — had been on her way to Moscow to play in the Russian Premier League during the WNBA’s offseason when she was detained. During her trial, Griner admitted to placing the cannabis oil in her luggage but said she did so unintentionally as she was packing her bags before traveling to Russia.

During her trial, Griner’s lawyers argued that while illegal in Russia, the cannabis oil Griner had was prescribed by a doctor in the U.S. Last week the Associated Press reported that Griner’s lawyers hoped medical testimony and her admission would help reduce her sentence.

“We have a lot of mitigating factors. So we do hope that the court will take it into consideration,” attorney Maria Blagovolina said last week.

The judge ultimately gave Griner just under the 9-1/2 years Russian prosecutors requested for her sentence. In addition to the prison sentence, the Russian court also fined Griner 1 million roubles ($16,990).

Reacting to the news, President Joe Biden said the sentence “is one more reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney.”

“It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates,” Biden added. “My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible.”

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said, “Today’s verdict and sentencing is unjustified and unfortunate, but not unexpected and Brittney Griner remains wrongly detained.”

“The WNBA and NBA’s commitment to her safe return has not wavered and it is our hope that we are near the end of this process of finally bringing BG home to the United States,” Engelbert and Silver added in their joint statement.

Russia may exchange Griner for Viktor Bout, a convicted Russian arms dealer currently imprisoned in the U.S.

Bout was convicted in 2011 of conspiring to kill U.S. nationals, conspiring to kill U.S. officers and employees, conspiring to acquire and export anti-aircraft missiles and conspiring to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization. The U.S. had designated FARC a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) until November of last year, when President Joe Biden’s administration removed the designation. He is currently serving a 25-year prison sentence.

Western media nicknamed Bout the “Merchant of Death.”

Last month, Biden reportedly offered to free Bout in exchange for Griner and U.S. Marine veteran Paul Whelan.

Whelan has been detained in Russia since December of 2018 and was convicted and sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison on espionage charges.

This week, sources familiar with prisoner exchange talks told Bloomberg that Russian President Vladimir Putin wants at least two Russian nationals released from the U.S. in return for Griner and Whelan.