Brittney Griner has been sentenced to nine years in a penal colony after being found guilty by a Russian court of criminal drug possession and smuggling.
Ms Griner was also fined one million rubles (about $16,300) by the court.
Her defense team slammed the verdict, calling it “absolutely unreasonable” and adding that they “will certainly be appealing.” The New York Times reported.
President Joe Biden issued a statement on the verdict, saying that Ms Griner “received a prison sentence that is another reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongly holding Brittney.”
“This is unacceptable and I call on Russia to release her immediately so that she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends and teammates. My administration will continue to work tirelessly and will do everything possible to get Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible,” he added.
Attorney General Merrick Garland said that “Ms. Griner was unlawfully detained, but beyond that I really can’t comment.”
Prosecutors had backed a nine-and-a-half-year sentence during closing arguments, fearing she would be used as a political pawn while Russia struggles under widespread sanctions imposed by the West in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The guilty verdict was expected as few defendants are acquitted in the Russian justice system The times.
Ms. Griner’s future will now be decided in negotiations between Russian and US diplomats. The US has a prisoner swap – Ms Griner and Mr Whelan, a former Marine serving in prison for espionage in Russia – for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout – the so-called ‘dealer of death’, who is serving a 25-year sentence in the US .
The Pheonix Mercury Center has been in detention since February 17, when she was arrested at a Moscow airport on her way to her Russian team, Yekaterinburg, east of the Ural Mountains. Russian officials said a verdict had to be reached before a possible swap could take place. US officials said she was wrongly detained.
The top US and Russian diplomats, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of State Sergei Lavrov, discussed the issue last week – their first conversation since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Nothing was reportedly agreed during the call.
Ms Griner got emotional in court on Thursday, before the verdict was announced, and apologized to her team and family in the case, which has reached the highest echelons of US and Russian diplomacy.
Prosecutors were pleading for a nine-and-a-half-year prison sentence for the Pheonix Mercury star, who was playing for Yekaterinburg in Russia, when she was arrested at a Moscow airport for drug possession.
Ahead of the sentencing hearing, Ms Griner said she had no intention of breaking the law when she brought vape cartridges on her flight.
“I want to apologize to my teammates, my club, my fans and the city [Yekaterinburg] for the mistake I made and the embarrassment I brought on her,” Ms. Griner said, according to the Associated Press. “I also want to apologize to my parents, my siblings, the Phoenix Mercury organization back home, the amazing women of the WNBA and my amazing spouse back home.”
“I made an honest mistake and I hope your judgment doesn’t end my life,” she added.
Ms. Griner said that Yekaterinburg has become a “second home” for her.
“I had no idea that the team, the cities, the fans, my teammates would make such a big impression on me in the six and a half years I’ve been here,” she said in court. “I vividly remember coming out of the gym and all the little girls waiting for me there in the stands and it kept me coming back here.”
Lawyers for Griner have produced character witnesses from her Russian team, for which she played during the WNBA offseason, as well as written testimonies from the doctor who prescribed the cannabis prescription for pain management.
Ms. Blagovolina argued that Ms. Griner should be acquitted, citing her lack of a criminal record and her work in the “development of Russian basketball.”
Another attorney defending Griner, Alexander Boykov, spoke about her role in winning multiple championships with her team Yekaterinburg, adding that she is loved by her teammates, many of whom look up to her.
Mr Boykov told the court that Ms Griner’s conviction would hamper Russian efforts to improve her national sport and took action against Moscow by saying that politics should be removed from sport.
The attorney noted that after her arrest, Ms. Griner won the sympathy of guards and other inmates, with some shouting, “Brittney, everything will be fine!” during her walks around the prison.
Ms Blagovolina argued before the verdict that “there should be a lighter sentence”.
Ms Griner told the court ahead of Thursday’s sentencing that her parents raised her to “take your responsibilities.”
“That’s why I pleaded guilty to my charges — I understand everything that was said against me in the charges against me, but I had no intention of breaking Russian law,” she said loudly The times. “I want the court to understand that it was an honest mistake I made trying to recover from Covid in a hurry and under stress and just trying to get back to my team.”