A Russian court on Thursday sentenced U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner to nine years in prison after finding her guilty of deliberately bringing cannabis-infused vape cartridges into Russia despite them being illegal.
She was also ordered to pay a fine of one million Russian rubles (approximately CA$20,965).
Her sentencing could pave the way for a high-profile prisoner swap between Russia and the United States that would include the 31-year-old athlete and an imprisoned Russian who was once a prolific arms dealers.
Griner earlier pleaded with a Russian judge not to “end her life” with a harsh prison sentence for bringing in vape cartridges containing hashish oil, before breaking down in tears in court.
The Russian prosecutor called for Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medallist and a Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) star, to be sentenced to 9-1/2 years in prison if she is found guilty of bringing illegal drugs to Russia.
Griner was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on Feb. 17 with vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage. She pleaded guilty but said she had neither intended to bring a banned substance to Russia nor to hurt anybody.
Following the guilty verdict, U.S. President Joe Biden released a statement.
“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 read. “It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates.
My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible.”
The WNBA also released a statement on Thursday.
In a teary statement before the verdict, Griner implored the judge to recognize her actions as a mistake.
“My parents taught me two important things: one, take ownership of your responsibilities and two, work hard for everything that you have. That’s why I pled guilty to my charges.”
“I made an honest mistake and I hope that in your ruling, that it doesn’t end my life here,” Griner said in court before breaking down in tears.
The vape cartridges threw the Texan athlete into the geopolitical maelstrom triggered when President Vladimir Putin sent troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24.
During the most strained U.S.-Russian relations since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, U.S. President Joe Biden is under pressure to intervene on behalf of Americans held in Russia.
The United States has said Griner was wrongfully detained and offered to exchange Russian prisoners for American citizens including Griner and former Marine Paul Whelan.
One source familiar with the situation said that Washington was willing to exchange convicted arms trafficker Viktor Bout, whose life helped inspire the 2005 Hollywood film Lord of War starring Nicolas Cage.
Russian officials have said a deal has not been reached. They argue that Griner, known as “BG” to basketball fans, violated laws and should be judged accordingly.
“I know everybody keeps talking about political pawn and politics, but I hope that is far from this courtroom,” Griner said.
Cannabis is illegal in Russia for both medicinal and recreational purposes.
Griner appeared at the hearing in a grey T-shirt and round-rimmed glasses. Before taking a seat in the defendant’s cage, she held up a team picture of UMMC Ekaterinburg, the team she played for in Russia during the WNBA offseason.
In her testimony last week, Griner expressed puzzlement as to how the vape cartridges ended up in her luggage as she was flying back to Russia to join UMMC Ekaterinburg for the playoffs.
“I still don’t understand to this day how they ended up in my bag,” said Griner, the first pick overall in the 2013 WNBA draft. “If I had to guess on how they ended up in my bags, I was in a rush packing.”
Griner had been prescribed medical marijuana in the United States to relieve pain from chronic injuries, a treatment method that is common among elite athletes because it has fewer side effects than some painkillers.