Russian court jails US basketball player Brittney Griner for nine years on drug charges
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 team, was arrested for cannabis possession at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport in February.
Her arrest took place days before Russia invaded Ukraine, prompting 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, is a necessary step if a prisoner exchange is to take place. 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 the courtroom.
“She’s very upset,” said Maria Blagovolina, one of her lawyers. “Very upset, very stressed. She can hardly talk. It’s a difficult time for her.” Griner had referred to the upcoming sentencing as “doomsday”, Blagovolina said. “It turns out she was right.”
“Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney,” said the 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.” The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said he was “committed to ensuring we do everything we can to bring home Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan as soon as possible”.
Griner’s defence team said they were “disappointed” by the verdict and would appeal. It is unlikely any swap would be made before the appeals process is exhausted.
Although 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. Lawyers said they considered Griner’s sentence extremely harsh, noting that many Russians arrested in similar cases are served suspended sentences on parole.
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 also rejected the political implications of her case, making an emotional appeal directly to the judge, Anna Sotnikova.
“I know everybody keeps 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.
Her legal team also said they would not engage in the political aspects of the case, saying that was up to the US embassy and government.
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 they 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 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 Islamist 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.”