A Russian court on Thursday, August 4, ruled that WNBA star Brittney Griner is guilty of smuggling drugs into the country, and sentenced her to 9 years imprisonment.
The two-time Olympic medalist, also a player for the Phoenix Mercury, has been behind bars overseas ever since her arrest more than five months ago at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, where customs officials said they discovered vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage. She was accused of intentionally smuggling drugs into the country, where marijuana use is illegal for both medicinal and recreational purposes.
Griner pleaded guilty in July to possessing the substance but has also maintained that she did not mean to break the law, telling authorities that she mistakenly put the cannisters in her suitcase as she rushed to pack for her return to Russia, where she plays for the UMMC Ekaterinburg basketball team during the WNBA’s offseason.
Griner’s lawyer, Maria Blagovolin, also noted that Griner was prescribed medical cannabis two years ago to treat severe chronic pain and presented a doctor’s note in court as proof. Blagovolin last month also provided a series of tests the American athlete received as part of an anti-doping check, none of which turned up any banned substances in her system.
The court “found the defendant guilty” of smuggling and possessing “a significant amount of narcotics”, judge Anna Sotnikova told a court in the town of Khimki just outside Moscow. The player was also fined one million rubles ($16,300).
US President Joe Biden was quick to condemn the verdict, calling it “unacceptable” and renewing his calls for the player’s release
“We will continue to use every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible,” he said, referring to another American imprisoned in Russia on an espionage conviction.
Sotnikova had said on Thursday that Griner committed the crime “deliberately”. But Griner had testified during the trial it was a mistake.
Since her arrest, Griner’s relatives, teammates and supporters have been calling on the US government to put its full weight behind the case to push for her release.
Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and a Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) star, was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on February 17, a week before Russia invaded Ukraine, when she entered the country with vape canisters containing cannabis oil.
“I never meant to hurt anybody, I never meant to put in jeopardy the Russian population, I never intended to break Russian law,” Griner said through a translator while standing in the metal cage reserved for defendants in Russian courtrooms. She apologised to her family, teammates, and her spouse
Griner’s lawyers said they plan on appealing the verdict, accusing the court of ignoring the evidence presented by the defence.
“Taking into account the amount of the substance – not to mention the defects of the expertise – and the plea, the verdict is absolutely unreasonable,” her defence team said in a statement.