A Russian court has convicted WNBA star Brittney Griner of smuggling drugs with criminal intent and has sentenced her to nine years in prison. The judge also fined her one million rubles (approximately $16,700), the Associated Press reported.
Russian prosecutors asked for Griner to be convicted and sentenced to 9 years and six months in prison, according to CNN. Prior to the guilty verdict and sentencing, Griner apologized and asked for leniency in an emotional speech during a hearing on Thursday, as her drug trial officially concluded.
“I want to apologize to my teammates, my club, my fans and the city of (Yekaterinburg) for my mistake that I made and the embarrassment that I brought on them,” Griner said before reportedly breaking down in tears. “I want to also apologize to my parents, my siblings, the Phoenix Mercury organization back at home, the amazing women of the WNBA, and my amazing spouse back at home.”
“I never meant to hurt anybody. I never meant to put in jeopardy the Russian population. I never meant to break any laws here,” Griner said to the courthouse. “I made an honest mistake and I hope that in your ruling that it doesn’t end my life here. I know everybody keeps talking about political pawn and politics, but I hope that that is far from this courtroom.”
“I want to say again that I had no intent on breaking any Russian laws. I had no intent,” she added. “I did not conspire or plan to commit this crime.”
Griner has been detained in Russia since February, when she was arrested at a Moscow airport after two vape cartridges containing cannabis oil were found in her luggage. Prosecutors have accused her of trying to smuggle less than one gram of cannabis oil into Russia, where the substance is illegal.
The U.S. Department of State has classified Griner as wrongfully detained, and many believe she is being used as a political pawn amid rising tensions between the United States and Russia. Her arrest came less than a week before Russia launched its Ukraine invasion.
Griner has asserted numerous times during her trial that she did not plan to bring cannabis into Russia, nor did she intend to break any laws. The Phoenix Mercury player, who plays for a Russian team during the WNBA’s off-season, pleaded guilty to drug charges last month in an effort to take responsibility, and in hopes of receiving a lenient verdict, according to her lawyers.
The trial’s outcome was not unusual. According to NPR, Russian criminal courts reportedly have a 99 percent conviction rate. Judge Anna Sotnikova said the time Griner has served in custody since her arrest would count toward the sentence, the Associated Press reported.
President Biden called the verdict “unacceptable” and issued a statement on Thursday, saying: “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. It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates.”
Griner’s sentencing could pave the way for a potential U.S.-Russia prisoner swap that would include the 31-year-old Olympic gold medalist and a notorious Russian arms dealer.