Brittney Griner: WNBA star sentenced to 9 years in prison in Russia for drug smuggling

Judge Anna Sotnikova of the Khimki City Court delivered the verdict and fined Griner 1 million rubles, or about $16,400. She said the court considered Griner’s partial admission of guilt, remorse for the crime, medical condition, and charitable activities. Prosecutors had demanded that she be sentenced to 9.5 years in prison.

“I never wanted to hurt anyone, I never wanted to endanger the Russian people, I never wanted to break any laws here,” Griner said. “I made an honest mistake and I hope your judgment doesn’t end my life here. I know everyone keeps talking about political pawns and politics, but I hope that’s a long way from this courtroom.

“I want to say again that I had no intention of breaking any Russian laws. I had no intention. I did not conspire or plan to commit this crime,” she added.

After the verdict, Griner told a CNN producer as she exited court, “I love my family.”

The verdict comes about six months after the 31-year-old was arrested at a Moscow airport and accused by Russian prosecutors of attempting to smuggle less than 1 gram of cannabis oil in her luggage. The two-time basketball Olympics gold medalist pleaded guilty to drug charges last month, saying she accidentally packed the drugs in a hurry.

Griner’s lawyers, Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov, said in a written statement that they will appeal the decision and criticized the court for ignoring their evidence. You have 10 days to appeal the decision.

“We are very disappointed with the verdict. As lawyers, we believe that the court should be fair to everyone, regardless of nationality. The court completely ignored all of the defense evidence and most importantly the guilty plea,” they said in the statement. “This is contrary to existing legal practice. Considering the level of substance (not to mention the shortcomings of the report) and the plea, the verdict is grossly inadequate. We will definitely appeal.”

In court, Boykov said the average prison sentence for this type of crime is five years, adding that nearly a third of those convicted would be paroled.

Griner “is not doing well today,” said Blagovolina, a partner at the law firm Rybalkin, Gortsunyan, Dyakin and Partners. The defense team is hoping Griner can talk to her family next week. Blagovolina added that Griner will return to the detention center where she is being held.

The ruling comes amid strained US-Russia relations

The harsh verdict comes against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the country’s saber-rattling with the US and Europe. The US State Department claims Griner was wrongly imprisoned, and US officials have offered Russia a possible prisoner swap to bring her home safely.
Chargé d’Affaires at the US Embassy in Russia Elizabeth Rood said the verdict was a “miscarriage of justice” and US President Joe Biden said the lengthy verdict was “unacceptable”.

“Today, American citizen Brittney Griner was sentenced to prison in another reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongly holding Brittney. It is unacceptable and I call on Russia to release her immediately so that she can be with her beloved friends and teammates,” Biden said in a statement.

Foreign Minister Antony Blinken criticized Russia’s legal system more generally, saying the phrase “highlights our significant concerns about the Russian legal system and the Russian government’s use of unlawful detention to advance its own agenda, using individuals as political pawns.” “

He said the US was working to bring home Griner and Paul Whelan, an American citizen held by Russia since 2018 on alleged espionage charges. “This is an absolute priority for me and the ministry,” he said.

CNN National Security analyst Steve Hall said the harsh verdict came as no surprise, arguing that Russia’s trials are not legitimate.

“It’s all performance in Russia. There was never any doubt about what was going to happen,” he said. “What Vladimir Putin is trying to do is basically inflate Ms. Griner’s bargaining price.”

Last week, CNN reported the Biden administration had proposed a prisoner swap with Russia, offering to release a convicted Russian arms dealer, Viktor Bout, in exchange for Griner and Whelan. Russian officials countered the US offer, multiple sources familiar with the discussions said, but US officials did not accept the request as a legitimate counteroffer.

The Kremlin warned Tuesday that US “megaphone diplomacy” would not help negotiations on a prisoner swap with Griner. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow believes these talks should be “discrete”.

Griner’s family, supporters and WNBA teammates have continued to express messages of solidarity and hope as they await the conclusion of the process. Their WNBA team, Phoenix Mercury, is scheduled to play the Connecticut Sun Thursday night at 7 p.m. ET.

In a joint statement, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver criticized the verdict and punishment as “unjustified and unfortunate, but not unexpected.”

“The commitment of the WNBA and the NBA to their safe return has not wavered, and we hope to be nearing the end of this process of finally bringing BG home to the United States,” they said.

The defense asked for leniency in the closing arguments

Thursday’s court hearing began shortly after Griner arrived in handcuffs and was escorted to the defendant’s cage by Russian officials. After uncuffing her, she spoke to her legal team and then held up a photo of basketball team UMMC Ekaterinburg, the Russian team she played for during the WNBA offseason.

In the closing arguments, Blagovolina argued that Griner had never used marijuana in Russia and that she never intended to. She didn’t have to bring the vape cartridges to Russia, the lawyer added. All this confirms the complete lack of intention of their actions, Blagovolina argued.

Even if Griner has ever used medical marijuana, it was only at home in Arizona, rarely, and only with a doctor’s prescription, she added. You cannot know how strict the laws in Russia are, Blagovolina said.

Boykov also argued that Griner had no opportunity to properly review the court documents. He said that the Russian constitution guarantees everyone the right to use their native language and to freely choose the language of communication.

Boykov cited a case where a language interpreter provided by Griner flipped through a lengthy document offered for translation by an investigator, and Griner then said, “Basically, it means you’re guilty.”

Investigating the substance in Brittney Griner's vape cartridges violates Russian law, a defense expert says

Throughout the trial, Griner’s lawyers have advanced arguments that undermine the prosecution’s case, alleging that her detention was improperly handled after she was stopped by Sheremetyevo International Airport personnel on February 17.

Their detention, search and arrest were “inappropriate,” Boykov said last week, noting that more details would be revealed during closing arguments.

After being stopped at the airport, Griner had to sign documents that she didn’t fully understand, she testified. At first, she said, she used Google Translate on her phone but was later taken to another room where her phone was taken and she was forced to sign more documents.

Griner testified that no attorney was present and her rights were not explained to her. These rights include access to a lawyer once detained and the right to know what she is suspected of. According to Russian law, she should have been informed of her rights within three hours of her arrest.

On Tuesday, at the seventh hearing in her case, a defense expert testified that investigating the substance contained in Griner’s vape cartridges was inconsistent with Russian law. Blagovolina also told CNN her team’s experts had identified “some flaws” in the machines used to measure the substance.

At trial, Griner testified that she had a doctor’s prescription for medicinal cannabis and had no intention of importing the drug into Russia. After her arrest in February, she was tested for drugs and found clean, her lawyers previously said.

“We continue to insist that she packed her suitcase in a hurry out of indiscretion and did not pay attention to the fact that substances approved in the USA ended up in this suitcase and arrived in the Russian Federation,” Boykov said. of the Moscow Legal Center said.

CNN’s Elizabeth Wolfe, Travis Caldwell, Dakin Andone, Kylie Atwood, Evan Perez, Jennifer Hansler, Natasha Bertrand, and Frederik Pleitgen contributed to this report.