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Inside her metal courtroom cage, a solemn, stone-faced Brittney Griner learned how long she’ll be locked away in Russian prison if the Biden administration can’t broker a deal to secure her release.
A Russian judge handed down a harsh nine-year sentence on Thursday, rejecting the WNBA star’s emotional apology and plea for leniency for the “honest mistake” of bringing less than a gram of cannabis oil into the country last February.
Griner was found guilty of drug possession and drug smuggling with criminal intent. The judge fined her 1 million rubles, roughly $16,300 U.S. dollars, in addition to sentencing Griner to just shy of the maximum 10 years that she was eligible to receive.
As the judge announced Griner’s verdict in Russian, a translator relayed what was said to the WNBA star. Griner displayed little emotion besides an occasional shake of her head or purse of her lips, but her supporters weren’t nearly so silent.
Standing outside the courthouse, Elizabeth Rood, Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, called the ruling a "miscarriage of justice."
President Biden echoed that soon afterward, describing Griner's nine-year sentence as "unacceptable" and pledging to "work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue" to bring her home.
"I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates," Biden added.
In a joint statement to reporters, Griner’s attorneys, Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov, called her nine-year sentence “absolutely unreasonable” and said they “will certainly file an appeal.”
"As legal professionals, we believe that the court should be fair to everyone regardless of nationality,” the attorneys’ statement read. “The court completely ignored all the evidence of the defense, and most importantly, the guilty plea. This contradicts the existing legal practice.”
The judge’s ruling comes nearly six months after she flew into a Moscow airport and Russian customs officials allegedly found .702 grams of cannabis oil in her luggage. That’s less than the weight of a pen cap or a stick of gum, yet prosecutors alleged it was enough to meet the “significant amount” threshold under Russian law and asked the judge to sentence Griner to nine and a half years in prison.
In her final statement to the judge at the end of closing arguments on Thursday, an emotional Griner apologized to her family, her teammates and her Russian club for "the embarrassment I brought on them."
"I never meant to hurt anybody," she said. "I never meant to put in jeopardy the Russian population. I never meant to break any laws here. I made an honest mistake and I hope that, in your ruling, that it doesn’t end my life here.
"I know that everybody keeps talking about political pawns and politics, but I hope that is far from this courtroom. I want to say again that I had no intent of breaking Russian laws. I had no intent. I did not conspire or plan to commit this crime."
That Griner’s words fell on deaf ears was no surprise. Experts have said for weeks that the real purpose of Griner’s trial was to paint a veneer of legitimacy on the Kremlin’s desire to hold her until it could extract concessions out of the U.S for her return. A guilty verdict and a long sentence were the outcome that gave Russia the most leverage with the Biden administration facing mounting pressure to bring Griner home.
“Look, the Russians are good at this stuff unfortunately,” said former State Department foreign services officer David Salvo, the deputy director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy and an expert on Russian foreign policy. “It's just a really unfortunate scenario for Brittney. You have a heavily politicized case with lots of attention all over American society and lots of pressure on the Biden Administration. The Russians are going to try to get every bit they can out of this.”
At the same time as Griner’s trial has unfolded inside a cramped courtroom outside Moscow, the question of her fate has also been discussed at the highest levels of U.S-Russian diplomacy. Last Friday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov to urge him to accept the U.S.’s “substantial proposal” to secure the release of Griner and Paul Whelan, another American whom the government considers wrongfully detained.
Blinken has declined to share details of the offer, but he has not denied reports that President Biden has signed off on trading a notorious Russian arms trafficker with high-level government and military intelligence connections. Viktor Bout is serving a 25-year sentence in an Illinois federal prison for conspiring to kill Americans and sell weapons to Colombian terrorists.
Griner’s sentence and guilty verdict essentially ends one chapter of her detainment and begins another. Russia has hinted that it will more seriously engage in negotiations once Griner’s trial is over — and the ultimate length of her stint in Russian prison will be determined by how long it takes Russia and the U.S. to negotiate a deal to bring her home.
William Pomeranz, an expert on Russian law and politics, predicted that the Kremlin won’t be in any hurry to accept the Biden administration’s 2-for-1 offer for Bout. Whereas Biden is under increasing domestic pressure to free Griner, Vladimir Putin doesn’t face the same level of urgency to bring Bout home.
“The U.S. pretty much laid its cards on the table, and now it’s the Russians who are in the driver’s seat,” said Pomeranz, the acting director of the Kennan Institute. “They can now dictate whether this prisoner swap happens and how fast this moves.”
As Griner waited on the diplomatic negotiations, there was little she could do to help her own cause. She couldn't fight against the inevitability of a guilty verdict. All she and her legal team could do was try in vain to make a case for a lenient sentence.
On July 7, Griner confessed to inadvertently violating Russian law, telling the judge she packed in a hurry and mistakenly brought the vape cartridges with her. Griner’s attorneys subsequently summoned character witnesses and introduced mitigating evidence to corroborate the WNBA star’s account.
The team captain and team director from Griner’s Russian basketball club testified on her behalf and described her as an exemplary citizen on and off the court. Griner’s lawyers also presented the court with an American doctor’s letter saying that Griner had been prescribed medical marijuana to help her cope with chronic pain from past basketball injuries.
In the end, none of it mattered.
As attorney and Russian legal expert Jamison Firestone said earlier this week, "“They are going to give her a lot of time. Then they are going to trade her.”