The verdict in the case of Brittney Griner was passed against the background of strained relations between the United States and Russia
The Khimki City Court of the Moscow Region sentenced American basketball player Brittney Griner to 9 years in a general regime colony, finding her guilty of drug smuggling. According to CNN, the judge also fined Griner 1 million rubles, or about $16,400.
The criminal case against Griner was initiated after vape cartridges containing hashish oil with a total weight of 0.702 grams were found in her hand luggage at Sheremetyevo Airport. The basketball player flew to Moscow from New York.
Two-time Olympic champion, basketball player of Yekaterinburg UMMC and the USA national team, Brittney Griner, was detained on February 17. She was sent to the SIZO. The athlete added that she had no intention “to violate any Russian laws,” that she “did not conspire and did not plan to commit this crime.”
Before sentencing, Griner apologized to the court and asked for leniency.
“I never wanted to offend anyone, I never wanted to endanger the Russian population, I never wanted to break any laws here. I made a mistake and I hope that your decision will not end my life here. I know everyone keeps talking about political pawns and politics, but I hope that’s far away from this courtroom,” Griner said.
The sentence was passed against the background of tense relations between the United States and Russia
The harsh sentence was pronounced against the background of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The U.S. State Department says Griner was wrongly detained, and U.S. officials have suggested a potential prisoner swap with Russia to try to bring her home safely.
Chargé d’affaires of the US Embassy in Russia Elizabeth Rudd said the verdict was a “miscarriage of justice”, and US President Joe Biden called the lengthy sentence “unacceptable”.
“Today, American citizen Brittney Griner was sentenced to prison, another reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongfully holding Brittney. This is unacceptable and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her friends and teammates,” Biden said in a statement.
Secretary of State Anthony Blinken criticized the Russian legal system more broadly, saying the sentence “highlights our grave concerns about the Russian legal system and the Russian government’s use of illegal detention to advance its own goals, using individuals as political pawns.”
He said the U.S. was working to bring home Griner and Paul Whelan, an American citizen who has been held by Russia for alleged espionage since 2018. “This is an absolute priority for me and the Department,” Blinken said.
CNN national security analyst Steve Hall said the harsh sentence was not a surprise and argued that the Russian trial was not legal.
“This is all Russia’s performance. There was never any doubt about what was to come,” he said. “What Vladimir Putin is trying to do is actually raise Ms. Griner’s contract price.”
CNN reported last week that the Biden administration had offered a prisoner swap with Russia, offering to release convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in exchange for Griner and Whelan. Multiple sources familiar with the matter said Russian officials denied the U.S. offer, but U.S. officials did not accept the request as a legitimate counteroffer.
The reaction of the Kremlin
The Kremlin warned on Tuesday that US “megaphone diplomacy” would not help the prisoner swap talks involving Griner. Kremlin spokesman Dmytro Peskov said Moscow believes these talks should be “discreet”.