Brittney Griner sentenced to nine years in Russian prison
A Russian court on Thursday sentenced WNBA star Brittney Griner to nine years in prison, an expected completion of her trial that should allow negotiations to speed up a prisoner swap.
Griner, who was arrested on February 17 for bringing cannabis into the country, was prepared for a stiff sentence, sources close to the player said. But she and her supporters were also aware that Russia would not move forward with any deal that could bring them home until their process was complete. A guilty verdict was always considered a foregone conclusion, and Griner pleaded guilty on July 7, although the case continued under Russian law.
During the sentencing hearing, Judge Anna Sotnikova said she found that Griner intentionally broke the law. The public prosecutor had demanded a prison sentence of 9½ years.
Sotnikova said the time Griner has been in custody since her arrest in February will count towards the verdict.
Griner responded to the sentence with little emotion, listening to the verdict with a blank look on her face.
US officials said last week they offered a deal for Griner’s return, and sources said the deal would swap convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for Griner and fellow American Paul Whelan, who has been in Russian custody since his arrest on espionage charges located December 2018.
Griner’s strategy throughout the trial was to treat it as a legitimate proceeding, knowing that a guilty verdict was a foregone conclusion and that any deal to send her home would require an admission of guilt.
Speaking in court at the end of her trial and ahead of Thursday’s sentencing, Griner again told the court she made “an honest mistake” and spoke about the sense of responsibility she learned from her parents, who grew up in Houston.
“That’s why I pleaded guilty to my charges. I understand everything that is being said against me, the charges that are being leveled against me, and that is why I have pleaded guilty,” Griner said, addressing the judge through an interpreter from her defendant’s cage. “But I had no intention of breaking any Russian laws.”
Griner also apologized to her teammates, fans, and the city of Yekaterinburg, where she has played during the WNBA offseas since 2014.
“I never wanted to hurt anyone. I never wanted to endanger the Russian people. I never wanted to break any laws here,” she said. “I made an honest mistake and I hope, in your judgment, that it doesn’t end my life here.”
Griner also addressed the political reality of her imprisonment: “I know that everyone always talks about ‘political pawn’ and ‘politics’, but I hope that’s a long way from this courtroom.”
Griner’s attorneys had hoped for leniency, but Griner and her supporters know that the length of the sentence is ultimately a formality in the negotiations for her release.
Russian officials, including the Kremlin’s top spokesman and deputy foreign minister, have insisted the country could not consider a deal under Russian law before she was convicted.
US officials declared Griner unlawfully detained in May and are increasingly frustrated with Russian inertia.
Her case progressed quickly compared to other Americans detained in Russia.
Whelan, for example, was held in custody for 18 months before his trial concluded in June 2020. American Trevor Reed was arrested in August 2019 and convicted in July 2020. He came home in April after the two countries agreed on a prisoner swap, which American officials sought when Reed was reportedly in poor health.
Reed’s release was the first welcome sign for Griner’s supporters that a diplomatic channel was open between the two countries following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
https://www.espn.com/wnba/story/_/id/34346379/brittney-griner-found-guilty-drug-possession-smuggling Brittney Griner sentenced to nine years in Russian prison