U.S. decries injustice of Griner guilty verdict in Russia
U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner, 31, was convicted last week in Russia of drug possession and sentenced to nine years in prison following a politically charged trial that came amid soaring tensions between Moscow and Washington over Ukraine. The guilty verdict could lead to a high-stakes prisoner exchange between the two world powers.
Griner, recognized as one of the greatest players in WNBA history, has been detained since Feb. 17 after police said they found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage upon landing at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. She was returning to Russia, where she has competed since 2014. A two-time U.S. Olympic champion and an eight-time all-star with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, her arrest has reached the highest levels of U.S.-Russia diplomacy.
Russian Judge Anna Sotnikova sentenced Griner to nine years. She listened to the verdict via an interpreter. She was also sentenced to a fine of 1 million rubles (about $16,700). The verdict was quickly denounced by President Joe Biden who said, “I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends and teammates.” Biden said he would continue to work to bring home Griner and Paul Whelan, an American imprisoned in Russia on an espionage conviction.
The disclosure last month that the U.S. government was seeking a prisoner swap involving Griner reflected the growing pressure on the Biden administration to do more to bring her home. Griner’s slow-moving case brought strong criticism from U.S. supporters including from her wife, Cherelle, that Biden was not doing enough to win her freedom. Griner later sent Biden a personal appeal and over 1,100 Black female leaders urged the administration to “make a deal to get Brittney back home swiftly and safely.”
Following her arrest, the U.S. State Department had earlier declared Griner to be “wrongfully detained” — a charge that Russia has sharply rejected. When she took the stand at her trial, Griner said: “I would like to plead guilty on the charges against me. But I had no intention of breaking any Russian law.” Griner went on to apologize to her family, teammates and the Russian city where she plays in the WNBA offseason, “for my mistake that I made and the embarrassment that I brought on them.” With her voice cracking, she added: “I hope in your ruling it does not end my life.”
Following the verdict, the U.S. Embassy’s charge d’affaires, Elizabeth Rood, called the verdict “a miscarriage of justice.”
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said last month that the “necessary judicial procedures” must be completed before any other steps can be taken. Many say that the conclusion to Griner’s trial should allow negotiations for a prisoner swap to accelerate.
U.S. officials said last week that they have offered a deal for Griner’s return, and sources have said the deal would trade convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for Griner and fellow American Paul Whelan, who has been in Russian custody since being arrested on espionage charges in December 2018. Now that there has been a guilty conviction, which some have said is a prerequisite to arranging a prisoner exchange, family and supporters are hoping Griner is home soon.