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Nearly six months after being detained in Moscow, WNBA superstar Brittney Griner was found guilty of an attempt to smuggle illegal narcotics into Russia, according to her lawyers. The court sentenced her to nine years in prison, a year shy of the 10-year maximum.
She also faces a fine of $1 million rubles, roughly $16,300.
The guilty verdict, which many expected in a warmongering country known for giving harsh sentences to foreign nationals, comes months after Russian authorities arrested Griner at a Moscow airport after finding a vape pen containing less than a gram of cannabis extracts in her luggage.
Elizabeth Rood, Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, called the ruling a “miscarriage of justice” while standing outside the courtroom.
“Secretary of State Blinken, President Biden’s national security team and the entire American government remain committed to bringing Miss Griner home safely to her family, friends and loved ones,” Rood said.
Griner, who pleaded guilty to drug smuggling in early July, has maintained that she accidentally packed cannabis in a haste and had a doctor’s prescription to use medicinal cannabis for chronic pain. Like other WNBA players, Griner was in Russia playing basketball during the offseason to supplement her income in a sport that pays women far less than men.
“I made an honest mistake and I hope that in your ruling, that it doesn’t end my life here,” Griner said in court before breaking down in tears, according to Reuters.
“My parents taught me two important things: one, take ownership of your responsibilities and two, work hard for everything that you have. That’s why I pled guilty to my charges.”
Brittney Griner to be sentenced for drug smuggling
For months, the U.S. State Department has labeled Griner “wrongfully detained” in a country that continues to wage war and commit atrocities against its neighbor Ukraine. Thursday’s guilty verdict now paves the way for a potential prisoner swap, as Russian authorities have previously said no negotiations would take place until the end of her trial.
Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and WNBA champion, was thrust into the middle of chaotic tensions between Russia and the U.S. after she was detained on Feb. 17, just a week before the Kremlin invaded Ukraine.
Facing intense pressure from Brittney Griner’s fans, politicians, faith leaders and relatives, President Biden is reportedly weighing a prisoner swap in which the U.S. would secure the release of Griner in exchange for Victor Bout, an arms dealer facing a decades-long prison sentence in the U.S.
Biden previously secured the release of U.S. Marine Trevor Reed in a similar prisoner swap in April.
Before the sentencing, Griner’s Russian defense lawyers pleaded for leniency.
“In sprinting there is Usain Bolt, in Formula 1 Michael Schumacher, and in women’s basketball there is Brittney Griner,” lawyer Maria Blagovolina told the court.
Griner’s other attorney, Alexander Boikov, said some of the case files were drawn up in violation of the country’s own laws.