Russia Confirms Nine-Year Sentence for Brittney Griner
WNBA Phoenix Mercury center and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner was arrested at a Moscow airport in February when authorities found cannabis oil in her luggage.
Griner, who had traveled to Moscow to play for a Russian basketball team during the WNBA’s offseason, was sentence to nine years in prison for drug smuggling. The arrest occurred just a few days before Moscow announced its invasion of Ukraine.
A Russian court rejected Griner’s appeal last week, increasing the chances of a prisoner swap with the United States. Griner, 32, is currently being held in a penal colony and was permitted to attend her court hearing via video link.
According to her defense attorneys, Griner had been prescribed cannabis oil to treat chronic pain and had not intended to pack the medicine with her on her trip to Russia.
The court’s decision is a “failure of justice compounding the injustice of her detention,” argued US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. “Securing her release is our priority.”
Griner’s sentence is “excessive and contradicts to the existing court practice,” wrote lawyers Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov, adding that most criminals convicted of similar charges in Russia get off on parole or receive a sentence of five years.
The Russian court’s only response was to note that since Griner’s time spent in pre-trial detention counts as “time and a half,” she will end up spending roughly eight years in prison instead of nine.
“Brittney’s biggest fear is that she is not exchanged and will have to serve the whole sentence in Russia,” said her attorneys. “She had hopes for today, as each month, each day away from her family and friends matters to her.”
Though US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said the Biden Administration is “willing to go to extraordinary lengths and make tough decisions to bring Americans home,” little progress has been made.
Unfortunately, the increased awareness of Griner’s plight has turned her into somewhat of a political football (or basketball, in this case) and as long as Biden keeps making comments, Russia will keep her locked up to piss him off. WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert has it right when she said the Russian court’s ruling confirms the fact that Griner is a “hostage.”
The Biden Administration in July offered to exchange Griner and Paul Whelan (an American serving time in Russia for espionage) for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer known as the “merchant of death” who is serving out a 25-year sentence in the US, but hasn’t received a response from Moscow.
In April, the US exchanged Russian pilot and known drug-trafficker Konstantin Yaroshenko for US Marines vet Trevor Reed. Russia also seeks the release of Alexander Vinnik, who was arrested in Greece in 2017 on money laundering charges and extradited to the US in August 2022.