Brittney Griner is sentenced to NINE years in Russian prison for smuggling cannabis vape pen through airport: Biden says she's been 'wrongfully detained' and demands she is 'released immediately so she can be with her wife'
- A judge found Griner guilty of drug smuggling on Thursday and gave her nine years in prison in Russia
- She pleaded for mercy, asking the judge: 'It was an honest mistake... I hope your ruling doesn't end my life'
- Griner, 31, added that she did not want to be used as a political pawn in the tension between Russia and US
- Griner was arrested at Moscow Airport in February for bringing a cannabis vape pen into the country
- She had been facing a maximum of 10 years behind bars - prosecutors requested six months under the max
- The White House has been unable to negotiate a prisoner swap to bring Griner, a WNBA star, home
- There is ongoing speculation she will be swapped with arms dealer Viktor Bout, the 'merchant of death'
- President Biden immediately denounced the sentence and said Russia 'wrongfully detained' her
Brittney Griner has been sentenced to nine years in Russian prison for bringing a marijuana pen into the country in February.
The WNBA star was found guilty of drug smuggling on Thursday by a judge who rejected her claim she accidentally brought the drugs in. Prosecutors had asked that she be jailed for nine-and-a-half years, six months less than the maximum of 10 years in prison. As she left court, Griner, 31, told journalists: 'I love my family.'
Her attorneys say they have ten days to appeal the verdict and sentencing, and that the typical sentence handed down for such a crime is six years.
President Biden immediately denounced the sentence and claimed she was 'wrongfully detained' - despite her pleading guilty. She said it was an 'honest mistake' and that the drugs must have ended up in her bag 'by accident'.
In a statement immediately after the sentencing, Biden said: 'Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney. It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates.'
It's unclear where Griner will spend her sentence. She has been locked up in the Correctional Colony No. 1, or IK-1, since February.
Brittney Griner in court in Khimki, near Moscow, on Thursday. The 31-year-old American athlete has been sentenced to nine years in prison
Griner was held in a cell while her legal team sat at a table surrounding her. She had to rely on an interpreter to relay what the judge said
Griner is led out of the courtroom in Khimki carrying a book, a bottle of water and photos of her teammates that she presented to the judge earlier
Griner being led out of the courtroom on Thursday. Her attorneys have not yet indicated whether they will appeal the sentence - or if that is even a possibility
He said he would continue to work 'tirelessly' to pursue 'every possible avenue' to bring her and Paul Whelan - another American imprisoned in Russia - home.
Charge d'Affaires of the US embassy in Russia Elizabeth Rood called it a 'miscarriage of justice' while John Kirby, the US National Security Council Director for Strategic Communications, echoed Biden's comments.
'This sentence, this trial just reaffirms what we have been saying all along: Brittney has been wrongfully detained and she needs to be immediately released by Russian authorities so she can be home with her wife, her teammates, and her friends and family and the President is going to stay 100% committed to achieving that outcome,' he said during an appearance on CNBC.
Terri Carmichael Jackson, WNBPA Executive Director, said in a statement: 'Today's verdict and sentence, while inevitable, is disappointing. The unjust decision today is what it is, unjust. It is a terrible blow.'
But many Americans think Griner's incarceration is fair.
While a nine-year sentence is harsh, they have repeatedly questioned why she brought the drugs into Russia, knowing it was strictly illegal.
Among them is Donald Trump, who said: 'She went in there loaded up with drugs, into a hostile territory and they are very vigilant with drugs.
'They don't like drugs. And she got caught.
'And now we're supposed to get her out for an absolute killer? One of the biggest arms dealers in the world. Killed many people, many Americans, and he's going to get a free card and we're going to get her out.
'She knew... you don't go in there loaded up with drugs. She admitted it. It certainly doesn't seem like a very good trade.
'He is one of the worst in the world and he is going to be given his freedom because a potentially spoiled person goes into Russia loaded up with drugs.
Griner was arrested at the airport in Moscow in February and has been incarcerated ever since, despite failed attempts from the White House to negotiate her release.
On Thursday, she sat in the defendant's cage inside the courtroom throughout the proceedings, relying on an interpreter to whisper to her everything the judge said.
Before the sentence was handed down, she begged for leniency and asked the court to take into consideration her good character.
A judge accepted her plea - finding her guilty on drug possession and smuggling.
They ruled that she committed the crimes purposefully - which she has denied.
She said she did not want to be considered a political pawn, and that bringing the cannabis pen into the country was a simple, 'honest mistake'.
Brittney Griner holds up a team photo showing her playing with UMMC Ekaterinburg, the Russian team she spent off-seasons with to bolster her WNBA earnings
'Russia became my second home. I remember vividly coming out of the gym and all the little girls coming out and waiting on me. That's what kept making me come back here.
'I want to apologize to my teammates, my club and the city for my mistake that I made and the embarrassment that I brought.
President Biden immediately denounced the sentence and claimed Russia had 'wrongfully' detained her
'I want to also apologize to my parents, my siblings, Phoenix Mercury, the amazing women of the WNBA and my amazing spouse back at home.
'I never meant to hurt anybody, I never meant to put in jeopardy the Russian population, I never meant to break any laws.
'I made an honest mistake and I hope that your ruling doesn't end my life. I know everybody keeps talking about political pawn and politics...but I hope that it's far from this courtroom.
'I had no intent on breaking Russian law. I did not conspire or plan to commit this crime.
'I hope you can take into account all the documents, the character lists that have been sent in on my behalf.
'This is my second home. All I wanted to do was win championships and make them proud,' she said.
The State Department had been in talks to secure Griner's release as part of a deal that would also bring imprisoned American Paul Whelan home.
The deal has been on the table for weeks, but Russia is yet to agree.
US officials will not confirm reports that it includes freeing Viktor Boult, a Russian criminal known as the 'merchant of death'.
Griner with her wife Cherelle, who has been begging for White House help for months
Griner was arrested at Moscow Airport in February when customs officials found a cannabis pen in her luggage. She has been incarcerated ever since
Part of the proposed swap with Griner was for Paul Whelan to be released too. He has been in Russian jail on charges of espionage since 2018 (left). Mark Fogel, a teacher who was detained on drugs charges last year, remains incarcerated and is not part of the swap
During closing arguments on Thursday, her attorneys pleaded for leniency.
'In sprinting there is Usain Bolt, in Formula 1 Michael Schumacher, and in women's basketball there is Brittney Griner,' her lawyer Maria Blagovolina said.
There was speculation Griner would be freed as part of a prisoner swap in exchange for arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was arrested in the US in 2010
Blagovolina, a partner at Rybalkin Gortsunyan Dyakin and Partners law firm, said that should the court deems it necessary to punish her, Griner should be be treated leniently.
Griner's family say they have been frustrated with the White House response to the situation.
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Monday that Russia has made a 'bad faith' response to the US government's offer, a counteroffer that American officials don't regard as serious.
She declined to elaborate.
Griner has acknowledged there were vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage when she was arrested at a Moscow airport.
But she insisted that she had no criminal intent and that the canisters ended up in her luggage because she was packing hastily.
'I still don't understand how they ended up in my bag,' she said.
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.
She played for a Russian women's basketball team in the WNBA off-season.
As part of the deal, the White House proposed swapping Whelan and Griner, but not Mark Fogel - a teacher who was incarcerated in Russia in 2021 on suspicion of drug smuggling.
His family have begged the Biden administration for help. Many have called for Griner's release on the basis that marijuana is legal in the US.