U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner was convicted Thursday in Russia of drug possession and sentenced to nine years in prison following a politically charged trial that came amid soaring tensions between Moscow and Washington over Ukraine and could lead to a high-stakes prisoner exchange between the two world powers.
The 31-year-old Griner, a two-time U.S. Olympic champion and a eight-time all-star with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury listened with a blank expression as an interpreter translated the verdict by Judge Anna Sotnikova. The judge also fined 1 million rubles (about $16,700) fine.
U.S. President Joe Biden denounced the verdict and sentence as “unacceptable.”
“I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates,” Biden said, adding that he would continue to work to bring home Griner and Paul Whelan, an American imprisoned in Russia on an espionage conviction.
Griner’s strategy throughout the trial was to treat it as a legitimate proceeding, knowing a guilty verdict was a foregone conclusion and that any deal to send her home would require an admission of guilt.
Addressing the court at the end of her trial and before sentencing Thursday, Griner again told the court she made “an honest mistake” and talked about the sense of responsibility she learned from her parents growing up in Houston.
“That’s why I pled guilty to my charges. I understand everything that’s being said against me, the charges that are against me, and that is why I pled guilty,” Griner said, addressing the judge through an interpreter from her defendant’s cage. “But I had no intent to break any Russian laws.”
Griner also apologized to her teammates, fans and the city of Ekaterinburg, where she has played during WNBA offseasons since 2014.
“I never meant to hurt anybody. I never meant to put in jeopardy the Russian population. I never meant to break any laws here,” she said. “I made an honest mistake, and I hope that in your ruling, that it doesn’t end my life here.”
Griner also addressed the political reality of her detention: “I know that everybody keeps talking about ‘political pawn’ and ‘politics,’ but I hope that is far from this courtroom.”
Griner’s attorneys had hoped for leniency, but Griner and her supporters know that in the end, the length of the sentence is merely a formality in negotiations for her release.
Russian officials, including the Kremlin’s top spokesman and the deputy minister for foreign affairs, have insisted that under Russian law, the country could not consider a deal before she was sentenced.