A Russian court sentenced WNBA star Brittney Griner to nine years in prison Thursday, an expected conclusion to her trial that should allow negotiations for a prisoner swap to accelerate.
Griner, who was arrested Feb. 17 for bringing cannabis into the country, had been prepared for a harsh sentence, sources close to the player said. But she and her supporters have also been aware that Russia was not going to move forward with a trade that could bring her home until her trial was completed. A guilty verdict was considered a foregone conclusion, and Griner pleaded guilty July 7, though the case continued under Russian law.
During sentencing, Judge Anna Sotnikova said she had found that Griner intentionally broke the law and also fined her 1 million rubles (about $16,700). Sotnikova said the time Griner has served in custody since her arrest in February would count toward the sentence.
Griner reacted to the sentence with little emotion, listening to the verdict with a blank stare on her face.
As she was led out of court, Griner said: “I love my family.”
The nine-year sentence was close to the maximum of 10 years that Griner had faced under the charges, and prosecutors had asked for a 9½-year sentence.
Griner’s defense lawyers said they would appeal. The defense team said that in sentencing the court had ignored all evidence it had presented and Griner’s guilty plea.
Defense attorney Maria Blagovolina told reporters later that Griner was “very upset, very stressed. She can hardly talk. It’s a difficult time for her.”
Under Russian law, Griner has 10 days to appeal, and her lawyers said they expect a hearing in Moscow regional court next week. Asked if Griner could ask for pardon from Russian President Vladimir Putin, Blagovolina said they would consider every possibility, but the lawyers said they were not part of any discussions about a prisoner swap.
U.S. President Joe Biden issued a statement on the verdict that referred to Griner as wrongfully detained — a designation U.S. officials have used since May — and called for her release.
“Today, American citizen Brittney Griner received a prison sentence that is one more reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney,” Biden said. “It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates.”
Outside the court, the U.S. Embassy’s chargé d’affaires Elizabeth Rood called the verdict “a miscarriage of justice.”
WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert and NBA commissioner Adam Silver, in a joint statement, called Thursday’s verdict and sentencing “unjustified and unfortunate,” while Griner’s WNBA team, also tweeted a statement of support and the WNBA players’ association said “It’s just time” for Griner to be returned to the United States.
“The WNBA and NBA’s commitment to her safe return has not wavered and it is our hope that we are near the end of this process of finally bringing BG home to the United States,” Engelbert and Silver said.
Said the WNBPA in its statement: “Today’s verdict and sentence, while inevitable, is disappointing. The unjust decision today is what it is, unjust. It is a terrible blow . Whatever conversations Secretary [Antony] Blinken and his Russian counterpart need to have, we trust that they are having them with all deliberate speed. Because it’s time. It’s just time.”