WNBA star Brittney Griner was found guilty and sentenced to nine years in Russian prison Thursday for allegedly having a small amount of cannabis in vape cartridges packed in luggage she brought through a Moscow airport earlier this year.
Russian prosecutors asked the judge for a nine-and-a-half-year sentence for the Phoenix Mercury player; she faced up to 10 years.
Any sentence, however, would be thrown out if American and Russian authorities struck a deal on a prisoner swap. Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed last week that the U.S. had put forth a “substantial offer,” reportedly suggesting that Griner and another American prisoner, former Marine Paul Whelan, be exchanged for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
Griner pleaded guilty to charges of drug possession, but said in court Thursday that she had made an honest mistake and apologized for bringing “embarrassment” on her Russian teammates.
“I want to also apologize to my parents, my siblings, the Phoenix Mercury organization back at home, the amazing women of the WNBA, and my amazing spouse back at home,” she added. Griner has been married to her wife, Cherelle Griner, since 2019.
“I know everybody keeps talking about ‘political pawn’ and politics, but I hope that that is far from this courtroom,” she said, according to multiple outlets. “I want to say again that I had no intent of breaking Russian laws. I had no intent. I did not conspire or plan to commit this crime.”
President Joe Biden said the sentence was “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 said in a statement. “My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible.”
Arms dealer Bout, who sold off large quantities of weapons after the fall of the Soviet Union, is currently around halfway through a 25-year sentence for allegedly taking part in a conspiracy to kill Americans. He was eventually captured in a sting operation in Thailand in 2008.
Griner was arrested in February while going through customs at Sheremetyevo Airport, outside of Moscow, for allegedly carrying 0.702 grams of hashish oil, a product that contains cannabis, in two vape cartridges. Days later, Russia invaded Ukraine. Griner’s arrest was announced in early March, prompting concerns that her detention was largely political, and Blinken later declared her a wrongful detainee.
The two-time Olympic gold medalist had been playing for Russia’s UMMC Ekaterinburg during the WNBA off-season periodically since 2014, as women’s basketball players are often better paid overseas than in the U.S.
In a handwritten letter to Biden that was also released in part to media outlets in early July, Griner said that she was “terrified” she might never see the outside of a Russian prison. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters that Biden read the letter and American officials were “going to use every tool that we possibly can” to bring Griner home.