Russian prosecutors have sentenced the US basketball star Brittney Griner to nine years in prison on charges of drug smuggling, raising the stakes of a proposed prisoner swap between the two countries.
The long prison sentence comes after the US stepped up its efforts in recent weeks to secure the release of Griner and other Americans detained in Russia, as tensions with Moscow continue to simmer over its invasion of Ukraine.
US president Joe Biden swiftly criticised the decision on Thursday, saying: “Brittney Griner received a prison sentence that is one more reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney. It’s unacceptable.”
Biden added that his administration will “pursue every possible avenue” to free Griner and another imprisoned American, Paul Whelan.
The prosecutors had requested a prison sentence of nine years and six months after Griner pleaded guilty on drug smuggling charges. Attorneys for the basketball star, who was also fined Rbs1mn, or about $16,000, said they intended to file an appeal.
“The verdict is absolutely unreasonable,” said Griner’s defence lawyers, Maria Blagovolina, partner at Rybalkin Gortsunyan Dyakin and Partners, and Alexander Boykov of Moscow Legal Centre. “The court completely ignored all the evidence of the defence, and most importantly, the guilty plea.”
Russia has said it is open to discussing further prisoner exchanges with the US after swapping former US marine Trevor Reed for convicted drug smuggler Konstantin Yaroshchenko earlier this year.
Last week, US secretary of state Antony Blinken spoke to his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in a bid to secure Griner’s release in the officials’ first conversation since president Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine in February.
The US has offered to exchange Viktor Bout, a Russian arms trafficker serving a 25-year sentence, for Griner and Whelan, who is in prison on espionage charges, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Blinken and Lavrov are in Cambodia at a meeting of Southeast Asian nations. Blinken is expected to try to talk to Lavrov there regarding Griner’s sentencing, a top White House spokesman said.
“I have no doubt that if he has an opportunity to buttonhole Mr Lavrov, he will do so. And if he doesn’t, if it doesn’t just happen organically, I’m sure secretary Blinken will reach out and have that communication,” said John Kirby, a top spokesman for the US National Security Council, on MSNBC on Thursday.
Police arrested Griner after claiming they found vaping cartridges with traces of hash oil in her luggage when she entered Russia in February, a few weeks before Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
Griner told the court she had brought the drugs into the country by mistake and had a prescription for medical marijuana to alleviate pain from sports injuries.
The commissioners of the NBA and WNBA, Adam Silver and Cathy Engelbert, called Thursday’s verdict “unjustified and unfortunate, but not unexpected”, adding that “it is our hope that we are near the end of this process of finally bringing BG home to the United States”.
Griner’s US-based agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, said on Twitter on Thursday that the verdict proved Griner is “being used as a political pawn”. She thanked the White House and state department for their continued diplomatic efforts.