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 always considered a forgone 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. Prosecutors had asked for a 9½-year sentence.
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.
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.”
U.S. officials said last week that they have offered a deal for Griner’s return, and sources have said the deal would trade convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for Griner and fellow American Paul Whelan, who has been in Russian custody since being arrested on espionage charges in December 2018.
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.
Compared to other Americans who have been detained in Russia, her legal case moved rapidly.
Whelan, for example, was held in pre-trial detention for 18 months before his trial concluded in June 2020. American Trevor Reed was arrested in August 2019 and convicted in July 2020. He came home in April after the two countries agreed to a prisoner swap that American officials sought when Reed was reported to be in poor health.
Reed’s release was the first welcome sign to Griner’s supporters that there was a diplomatic channel open between the two countries following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.