U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner was convicted Thursday in Russia of drug possession and smuggling and was sentenced to nine years behind bars in a politically charged case that could lead to a high-stakes prisoner exchange between Washington and Moscow.
The 31-year-old Griner, a two-time U.S. Olympic champion and a eight-time all-star with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, listened with a blank expression as an interpreter translated the verdict by Judge Anna Sotnikova, but her lawyers said later she was “very upset.”
“I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates,” Biden said, adding that he would continue to work to bring home Griner and Paul Whelan, an American imprisoned in Russia on an espionage conviction.
The disclosure in July that the U.S. government was seeking a prisoner swap involving Griner reflected the growing pressure on the Biden administration to do more to bring her home.
The U.S. State Department had earlier declared Griner to be “wrongfully detained” — a charge that Russia has sharply rejected.
Griner’s case and her nearly six months behind bars have raised strong criticism among her supporters in the United States, including her wife, Cherelle, that Biden was not doing enough to win her freedom.
Griner sent a personal appeal to Biden, and more than 1,100 Black female leaders urged the administration to “make a deal to get Brittney back home swiftly and safely and to meet with Brittney’s wife Cherelle immediately.”
On July 27, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington has offered a deal to Russia aimed at bringing home Griner and Whelan in a sharp reversal of previous policy.
Details of the proposal were not announced, though a person familiar with the matter said the U.S. has offered to trade convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for Whelan and Griner.
Russian media have speculated repeatedly that Griner could be swapped for Bout, nicknamed “the Merchant of Death,” who is serving a 25-year sentence in the U.S. after being convicted of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organization.
The severity of Griner’s sentence could give Russia leverage in a swap by increasing pressure on Washington to negotiate her release.
Griner’s detention was made public only after Russian troops moved into Ukraine, as relations between Russia and the United States hit new lows after Washington led the West in bringing sanctions against Moscow.