On August 4, a Russian court found WNBA star Brittney Griner guilty of drug possession. And sentenced her to nine years in a penal colony. The expected verdict came nearly six months after officials arrested Griner at a Moscow airport on cannabis possession charges. And amid fears that she’s being used as a political pawn. Here’s what’s next in the fight to bring the basketball star home. But first…
A refresher on the WNBA star...
Britney Griner is a 31-year-old, seven-time WNBA All-Star center for the Phoenix Mercury. And a two-time Olympic Gold medalist with Team USA. Since 2015, Griner’s played for the Russian basketball club UMMC Ekaterinburg during the WNBA’s offseason. Note: About half of the WNBA’s 144 athletes play overseas during the offseason. Why? Because stars like Griner can bank quadruple the amount they earn at home. It’s a problem the NBA doesn’t have. And this past winter, more than a dozen WNBA players took their talents to Ukraine and Russia. Including Griner.
Why was she arrested?
Over alleged traces of hashish oil. On Feb. 17, Russian authorities arrested the basketball star — who flew to Russia from New York — on drug charges. Officials said Griner had vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage and opened a criminal investigation. For more than five months, Griner remained in Russian custody. And info about her wellbeing had been scarce — mainly coming from Russian state media. Now, she’s been found guilty and sentenced to nine years in prison. And has to pay a fine of 1 million rubles (more than $16,000).
How did the trial play out?
In July, Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges. She also testified that she had no intention of breaking the law. And that she was recovering from COVID-19, stressing, and rushing to pack. She maintained that she still doesn’t “understand” how cannabis oil ended up in her luggage. But she had a doctor’s note to use it for her injury pain — something that her lawyer says is common among professional athletes. Weeks after the trial started, a Russian judge handed down the guilty verdict. Which wasn’t unexpected, since defendants in Russian criminal cases are rarely acquitted.
Griner’s attorney told reporters that she’s “very upset [and] stressed.” They hoped the court would consider the most lenient sentencing possible. (Note: She faced a max of 10 years.) Now they are planning to appeal the verdict. And said the court “completely ignored all the evidence” from the defense. Including Griner’s guilty plea, which they believed would earn her a lighter sentence.
President Biden said the court’s ruling was “unacceptable” and called on the Kremlin to release Griner “immediately.” WNBA and NBA officials said she “remains wrongly detained.” And that they hope “we are near the end of this process of finally bringing BG home.” Meanwhile, Griner’s supporters are amplifying calls for that to happen.
What does this mean for the fight to bring her home?
Griner’s fate is in the hands of politicians. On July 27, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US has offered Russia a deal to bring Griner home. Specifically, to exchange Viktor Bout — a convicted international weapons dealer — for Griner and former Marine Paul Whelan. He was arrested in 2018 on espionage charges and is serving a 16-year sentence there.
It’s unclear where the negotiations stand between the US and Russia. Biden said his admin would “work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue” to get Griner and Whelan home. But supporters have been calling for a prisoner swap for months. Especially after former Marine Trevor Reed was released in April as part of a US-Russia exchange.
It all comes amid rising concern that she’s being used as a political pawn. Reminder: Russia and the US have not had the best relationship amid the Kremlin’s ongoing war with Ukraine. The US has continued to support Ukraine with weapons and millions of dollars in humanitarian aid. And shut out Moscow’s economy from the world with historic sanctions.
Brittney Griner’s conviction comes amid strained geopolitical tensions between the US and Russia. Now, the WNBA star’s supporters worry she’s being used as leverage for Russia’s gain. And they want her safe return, now.
Updated on Aug. 4 to include Brittney Griner’s conviction and sentence.
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