Russian Court Sentences Griner to 9 Years, Raising Pressure on Biden

A Russian court on Thursday sentenced the American basketball star Brittney Griner to nine years in a penal colony after convicting her on a drug charge, a harsh penalty that keeps her fate entwined with the geopolitical showdown over the war in Ukraine and ramps up already intense pressure on President Biden to win her release.

The U.S. government contends that she is among several Americans who have been “wrongfully detained” by Russia, used as bargaining chips in the increasingly hostile relationship between Moscow and Washington. The Biden administration has offered a prisoner swap involving Ms. Griner, but Russian officials said it was premature to discuss a deal while her case was underway.

Now that the trial is concluded, Mr. Biden faces a difficult choice between standing firm on his proposal to trade for Ms. Griner and another American, Paul N. Whelan, or sweetening the offer somehow, with either position liable to draw domestic criticism.

Meanwhile the Kremlin can use them as leverage, with no incentive to resolve the cases quickly. Her supporters, voicing horror at the verdict and sentence, are clamoring for the president to do something, while the administration is wary of giving in to Russian tactics it has all but labeled as blackmail.

“My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible,” Mr. Biden said in a statement after the verdict.

Ms. Griner, 31, one of her sport’s biggest global stars, sat mostly expressionless, eyes downcast, leaning her long frame toward the bars of the defendant’s box in a cramped courtroom outside Moscow to hear as the words of the judge, Anna S. Sotnikova, were quietly translated for her. She had already pleaded guilty and conviction is all but certain in Russian courts, so the verdict was a foregone conclusion; the real question was about sentencing.

The answer was devastating. The sentence was near the 10-year maximum for her conviction for attempting to smuggle narcotics into the country, based on two vape cartridges containing hashish oil found in Ms. Griner’s luggage when she arrived in February, a week before Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, sent his forces pouring over the border into Ukraine.

She and her legal team had hoped for a more lenient penalty based on her guilty plea, her statement that she had not meant to take the cartridges to Russia, and testimony that she used the substance legally in the United States to manage pain.

“I made an honest mistake, and I hope that in your ruling that it doesn’t end my life here,” she said before the sentencing.

Attorneys Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov speak to reporters after the court’s verdict.Credit…Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters

She told the court that while she took responsibility for her actions, “I had no intent to break Russian law.” She said that after recovering from a bout of Covid, she had packed hurriedly to rejoin the Russian team she plays for in the W.N.B.A. off-season, and had accidentally left the cartridges in her luggage.

“I know that everybody keeps talking about political pawn and politics,” she added, “but I hope that is far from that courtroom.”

Ms. Griner’s defense team called the ruling “absolutely unreasonable,” said the court had “completely ignored all the evidence of the defense, and most importantly, the guilty plea,” and vowed to appeal. Elizabeth Rood, the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, attended the court session and called the result “a miscarriage of justice.”

What to Know About Brittney Griner’s Detention in Russia

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What happened? In February, Russian authorities detained Brittney Griner, an American basketball player, on drug charges, after she was stopped at an airport near Moscow. Since then, her detention has been repeatedly extended. Ms. Griner’s trial began on July 1; she pleaded guilty. On Aug. 4, she was found guilty and sentenced to nine years in a penal colony.

Why was she detained? Officials in Russia said they detained Ms. Griner, who was in the country playing for an international team during the W.N.B.A. off-season, after finding vape cartridges that contained hashish oil in her luggage; a criminal case carrying a sentence of up to 10 years was later opened against her. Ms. Griner’s lawyers have argued that the star had a medical prescription for the hashish oil and mistakenly carried the drug into Russia.

How is the U.S. approaching the situation? U.S. officials have said that Ms. Griner was “wrongfully detained,” adding that they were working aggressively to bring her home. Two days after Ms. Griner sent a handwritten letter to President Biden asking him not to forget about her, Mr. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke with Cherelle Griner, the W.N.B.A. star’s wife, who had questioned whether the Biden administration is doing enough.

What are the possible outcomes? Experts say that her best hope may be for the Biden administration to suggest a prisoner swap with a Russian citizen being held by the United States. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said on July 27 that the United States had put forward a proposal to that effect in talks with Russia weeks earlier.

Russian officials have insisted that Ms. Griner’s case is simply the justice system running its course, with no political overtones — a claim that their American counterparts and many Western analysts dismissed as absurd.

William Pomeranz, a Russia expert and acting director of the Kennan Institute, a research group in Washington, noted that Ms. Griner was sentenced not to a prison but to a penal colony, which tends to mean a more remote location — many are in Siberia — and harsher conditions.

“She’s probably going to go to a penal colony that’s in the middle of Russia where she won’t know anybody,” he added. “They won’t be able to come and visit. Penal colonies can sometimes be very severe. It will be a tremendous test of her mental state if she ends up going to a penal colony.”

The United States has few options, he said. “It will just depend on the Russians and how fast they want to make a deal.”

Fellow basketball players, male and female, and basketball executives took to social media to voice support for Ms. Griner and grief at the verdict. Ms. Griner’s team, the Phoenix Mercury, said in a statement: “We remain heartbroken for her, as we have every day for nearly six months. We remain grateful to and confident in the public servants working every day to return her to her family and us.”

With Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and the indiscriminate destruction it has caused, relations between Washington and Moscow are more confrontational and bitter than they have been in decades. The United States has rallied the West to send arms and other aid to Ukraine, and to punish Moscow with economic sanctions, looking for opportunities to ratchet up the pressure.

The two sides have made prisoner exchanges before, most recently in April, when Russia released Trevor R. Reed, an American held on what his family said was a bogus assault charge, in return for a Russian pilot convicted in the United States of cocaine trafficking charges. But rarely have proposed swaps come amid such tension, or involved anyone as prominent as Ms. Griner.

In a sign of how high the stakes are for Washington, Ms. Griner’s fate was among the topics discussed last Friday by Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, in their first direct conversation since before the invasion.

The Biden administration has offered to trade Ms. Griner and Mr. Whelan for Viktor Bout, who is serving a 25-year sentence for a 2011 conviction on a federal charge of conspiring to sell weapons to people posing as terrorists intent on killing Americans. Mr. Whelan, detained in Russia since 2018, was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 16 years.

Viktor Bout arriving at court in Bangkok in 2010 ahead of his extradition to the U.S.Credit…Nicolas Asfouri/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Russia made an unspecified “bad faith” counteroffer, the White House said on Monday, which U.S. officials said they did not consider serious.

John Kirby, spokesman for the National Security Council, told reporters on Thursday, “I don’t think it would be helpful to Brittney or to Paul for us to talk more publicly about where we are in the talks and what the president might or might not be willing to do.”

The Plight of Brittney Griner in Russia

The American basketball star has endured months in a Russian prison on charges of smuggling hashish oil into the country.

  • The Ordeal, in Her Own Words: During her trial, Ms. Griner said she had been tossed into a bewildering legal system with little explanation of what she might do to try to defend herself. 
  • Who Is Viktor Bout?: The man who could be part of a prisoner swap to release Ms. Griner has been accused of supplying arms to Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and rebels in Rwanda.
  • Hostage Diplomacy: In recent years, several Americans have been swept up by hostile governments looking to use them as bargaining chips. Brittney Griner might be one of them.
  • The N.B.A.’s Low Profile: The league has been mostly quiet in the public campaign to free Ms. Griner, even though it founded and still partly owns the W.N.B.A. Here’s why.

“Conversations are ongoing at various levels,” he added.

If Mr. Biden sticks to his initial offer, he could face accusations of not doing enough.

Ms. Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, and other supporters have mounted an effective public campaign to pressure the president to win her release. Supporters worry about her treatment in a country where anti-American and anti-gay vitriol are deeply embedded in popular views and official propaganda. Images of a grim-faced Ms. Griner being led, handcuffed, in and out of court, towering over her armed guards, have become commonplace in U.S. and international media.

The administration could make a more attractive offer, but U.S. officials already worry that deals for prisoners could encourage hostile foreign governments to detain Americans on trumped-up charges in exchange for concessions like freeing their own wrongdoers. Some Republicans have already complained that Mr. Biden’s existing offer creates such an incentive.

A 6-foot-9 center, Ms. Griner won a college national championship with Baylor in 2012, a W.N.B.A. championship with the Mercury in 2014, Olympic gold medals with the U.S. team at the 2016 and 2020 games, and four EuroLeague championships with the Russian team UMMC Yekaterinburg. Like many players in the W.N.B.A., where salaries are much lower than in the N.B.A., Ms. Griner — who also played one season for a professional team in China — has played overseas to supplement her income.

Ms. Griner in court on Thursday.Credit…Pool photo by Evgenia Novozhenina

Reporting was contributed by Michael Crowley, Jonathan Abrams and Tania Ganguli.

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