US basketballer Brittney Griner jailed for nine years in Russia over drug charges

4 August 2022, 17:35

Brittney Griner sentenced to nine years in Russian jail over drug charges
Brittney Griner sentenced to nine years in Russian jail over drug charges. Picture: Alamy

By Megan Hinton

A Russian court has sentenced US basketball star Brittney Griner to nine and a half years in prison on drug charges.

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The two-time Olympic gold medallist and player for the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury was arrested at a Moscow airport in mid-February when inspectors found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage.

She pleaded guilty to the charges but says she had no criminal intent in bringing them into the country and packed in haste for her return to play in a Russian basketball league during the WNBA's offseason.

During the trial Griner testified that a language interpreter translated only a fraction of what was being said while she was detained at Moscow's airport and that officials told her to sign documents, but "no one explained any of it to me".

Griner also said that besides the poor translation, she received no explanation of her rights or access to a lawyer during the initial hours of her detention. She said she used a translation app on her phone to communicate with a customs officer.

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After the sentencing, US President Joe Biden said in a statement: "Today, American citizen 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, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates."

Her arrest came at a time of heightened tensions between Moscow and Washington ahead of Russia sending troops into Ukraine later that month.

The slow-moving trial and Griner's five months of detention have raised strong criticism among teammates and supporters in the United States, which has formally declared her to be "wrongfully detained" - a designation sharply rejected by Russian officials.

It comes after last Wednesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Washington had offered Russia a deal that would bring home Griner and another jailed American, Paul Whelan.

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A person familiar with the matter said the US government proposed trading convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for Whelan and Griner.

Asked about the US offer, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov replied that prisoner swaps were typically negotiated discreetly behind the scenes.

"We know that such issues are discussed without any such release of information," Mr Peskov told reporters during a conference call.

"Normally, the public learns about it when the agreements are already implemented."

He emphasised that "no agreements have been finalised" and refused to provide further details.

In a separate statement, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that Russian and US officials have conducted negotiations about possible prisoner exchanges and "there has been no concrete result yet".

"We proceed from the assumption that interests of both parties should be taken into account during the negotiations," Ms Zakharova said.

Russia has for years expressed interest in the release of Bout, a Russian arms dealer once labeled the "Merchant of Death".

He was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2012 on charges that he schemed to illegally sell millions of dollars in weapons.