Washington Reacts to ‘Brazen,’ ‘Unacceptable’ Russian Sentence for Brittney Griner
WASHINGTON — Brittney Griner, the American WNBA player who was tried in Russian court for drug smuggling after bringing cannabis oil into the country, was sentenced to nine years in prison on Thursday, inspiring sharp rebukes in the nation’s capital.
“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,” President Joe 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,” he continued. “My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible.”
Whelan is a Canadian with U.S., British and Irish citizenship who was arrested in Russia on Dec. 28, 2018, and accused of spying. On June 15, 2020, he received a 16-year prison sentence.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken also issued a strongly worded statement, saying the conviction and sentencing of Griner by the Russian court “further compounds the injustice of her wrongful detention.
“This step puts a spotlight on our significant concerns with Russia’s legal system and the Russian government’s use of wrongful detentions to advance its own agenda, using individuals as political pawns,” Blinken said.
“Nothing about today’s decision changes our determination that Brittney Griner is wrongfully detained, and we will continue working to bring Brittney and fellow wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Paul Whelan home. This is an absolute priority of mine and the department’s,” he continued. “We will also continue to press for fair and transparent treatment for all U.S. citizen detainees in Russia.
“Russia, and any country engaging in wrongful detention, represents a threat to the safety of everyone traveling, working, and living abroad. The United States opposes this practice everywhere,” Blinken said.
Griner was arrested on Feb. 17 for carrying cannabis oil in her bag, which is legal in the United States but not in Russia.
She pleaded guilty last month to carrying vape cartridges with cannabis oil into the country.
Prosecutors contended throughout her trial that the 0.702 grams of cannabis found in her luggage after she landed at Sheremetyevo International Airport was a significant amount under Russian law.
Ever since then, many have speculated that her arrest and incarceration are being used by Russia to lash out at the United States for the sanctions it imposed in response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
According to pool reporters in the Russian courtroom earlier today, Griner apologized prior to her sentencing to her teammates, club and the city of Yekaterinburg, Russia, where she was flying to in order to play basketball.
“I want to apologize … for my mistake that I made and the embarrassment that I brought on them. 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,” she said.
Griner also said it was never her intention to break Russian law, and that she simply made a mistake while rushing to pack her bags and make her plane.
The judge rejected both her apology and her plea for leniency, handing down a sentence that was close to maximum possible. In addition to the 91/2 years in prison, Griner was fined 1 million rubles (about $16,590).
Thursday’s events left her fate in the hands of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and ratcheted up the pressure on the Biden administration to strike a deal on a possible prisoner swap.
Last week, Secretary Blinken said the U.S. had made a “substantial” offer to the Russians without going into details. Russia reportedly rejected that offer on Monday.
The speculation is the U.S. offered to free convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in return for Griner and Whelan, but Russia rejected the 2-for-1 deal.
It is said the Russians are also seeking the inclusion of Vadim Krasikov in the deal. Krasikov , a former Russian official was convicted of murder in Germany in 2021.
Because Krasikov is imprisoned in Germany, authorities in Berlin would have to agree to release him for a U.S.-Russia prisoner swap to take place.
Traveling in Seoul, South Korea, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, “The wrongful detainment and unjust sentencing of Brittney Griner are brazen and unacceptable violations of the rule of law by Putin. Russia must release her immediately.
“Every day that Brittney Griner remains in detention is a reminder of Putin’s contempt for human rights, human dignity and the law,” the speaker continued. “Congress supports and stands with President Biden in making the release of Brittney Griner a priority, and our prayers are with Brittney’s wife, Cherelle, and their entire family.
“We will continue to support the administration as it works to bring her, Paul Whelan, and others unjustly detained in Russia and around the world, home to their country and to their loved ones,” Pelosi said.