A Russian court has found WNBA star Brittney Griner guilty of attempting to smuggle illegal narcotics into Russia, sentencing her to nine years in a penal colony.
Griner, whom the United States insists has been wrongfully detained by the Russian government, was arrested at a Moscow airport on Feb. 17 while traveling to Yekaterinburg, where she had been playing for a local team during the off-season to earn extra money.
Customs officials checking Griner’s luggage at the airport allegedly found two vape cartridges containing less than one gram of hashish oil, a drug made from parts of the cannabis plant, which is banned in Russia. She was arrested and detained, but news of her detention was only made public after Russia invaded Ukraine a week later.
During one of the initial hearings in her case, Griner pleaded guilty to the charge, but insisted she had never intended to break Russian law, and that the vape cartridges were in her luggage due to an oversight while packing in a hurry.
The judge also fined Griner 1 million rubles, or about $16,300, as part of her sentence.
According to The New York Times, Griner’s lawyers had asked the court to take into account Griner’s personality and the role she has played in the development of Russian basketball playing for EMMC Ekaterinburg in the WNBA off-season, asking for a “milder” penalty.
Addressing the court, Griner talked about her upbringing in Houston and the values her parents instilled in her, including to “take ownership for your responsibilities.”
“That’s why I pleaded guilty to my charges; I understand everything that has been said against me in the charges against me, but I had no intent to break Russian law,” she said. “I want the court to understand that it was an honest mistake that I made while rushing and in stress trying to recover post-COVID and just trying to get back to my team.”
Unfortunately for Griner, Russian courts are known to give harsher sentences to high-profile foreigners accused of breaking the law. In 2020, a Russian court sentenced Trevor Reed, a former U.S. Marine, to nine years in prison for allegedly assaulting two police officers during an altercation — the harshest punishment for the charges against him. He was released in April after being exchanged for a Russian pilot convicted in 2011 of smuggling drugs into the United States, as part of a prisoner swap.
Additionally, Griner’s arrest, coinciding with the deterioration of U.S.-Russia relations — stemming from the United States’ support for Ukraine during the ongoing Russian invasion, and the condemnation of Russia’s actions — left many observers claiming that she was being used as a pawn as part of a politically-motivated trial intended to embarrass a high-profile American.
The U.S. has reportedly raised the possibility of a prisoner swap, in which Griner and Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine and businessman who has been detained since 2018 on espionage charges, would be exchanged for a Russian national and convicted arms dealer, who allegedly tried to sell weapons, including anti-aircraft missiles, to federal agents posing as members of the guerrilla group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
Russian officials say that a verdict in her trial was needed in order to arrange any future prisoner exchange involving Griner, a former Olympian and seven-time WNBA All-Star.
Blinken claimed the United States had “put a substantial proposal on the table” regarding a possible swap, but declined to discuss specifics. But Russian officials have criticized the United States for publicizing its efforts to get Griner released, saying such conversations “should be discreet.”
“Megaphone diplomacy and the public exchange of opinions will not lead to result,” said Dmitri Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman.
Griner previously penned a handwritten letter to President Joe Biden, asking him not to forget her or other Americans wrongfully detained in Russia, and to work to bring them home and saying she was “terrified” she might be detained for the rest of her life.
“I believe in you,” Griner told Biden in that letter. “I still have so much good to do with my freedom that you can help restore. … I am grateful for whatever you can do at this moment to get me home.”
Basketball star Brittney Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges in Russia denying that she wanted to break the law.
In February, Griner was detained at an airport near Moscow for possession of a vape filled with hashish oil. All forms of marijuana are illegal in the country, including those for medical use.
The lesbian Olympic gold medalist appeared in Russia’s Khimki Court on Thursday, July 7. “I’d like to plead guilty, your honor. But there was no intent,” Griner told the judge. “I didn’t want to break the law.”
She explained at her plea meeting that she wants to have her side heard. “I’d like to give my testimony later. I need time to prepare,” she said, according to Reuters.
A Long Island man has been sentenced to 30 months in prison for sending letters through the mail threatening to "kill, shoot, and bomb" prominent LGBTQ sites and organizations in the New York area.
Robert Fehring, 74, of Bayport, New York, pleaded guilty in February to sending more than 60 letters targeting the LGBTQ community over an eight-year span.
In one letter, Fehring threatened to place "radio-controlled devices placed at numerous strategic places" at the New York City Pride March with "firepower" that would "make the 2016 Orlando Pulse Nightclub shooting look like a cakewalk," referring to a mass shooting that killed 49 and wounded dozens more.
The Biden administration has offered to exchange convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout as part of a deal to release WNBA star Brittney Griner and another American prisoner who the State Department claims is being unlawfully detained in Russia.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during a State Department news conference that the White House had made a "substantial" offer to the Kremlin to ensure Griner's release.
"There was a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release. Our governments have communicated repeatedly and directly on that proposal," Blinken said. "And I'll use the conversation to follow up personally and I hope move us toward a resolution."
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