US president calls basketball star “wrongfully detained” and demands Russia release her “immediately”
Brittney Griner’s conviction is “unacceptable” and Russia must release her “immediately,” US President Joe Biden said on Thursday, after a Moscow court gave the Olympic basketball champion a nine-year sentence on drug charges. He also described Griner as “wrongfully detained.”
Griner’s sentence is “one more reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney,” Biden said in a statement released by the White House. The US president is isolating at the White House after his Covid-19 symptoms returned.
“It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates,” the statement said, adding that the US government will “continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue” to bring home both Griner and Paul Whelan, whom Russia convicted of espionage in 2020 and sentenced to 16 years.
A district court in Khimki had found Griner guilty on charges of smuggling illegal narcotics and sentenced her to nine years in a penal colony, slightly less than the nine and a half the prosecutors demanded. The presiding judge also ordered her to pay a fine of one million rubles ($16,200).
Griner was arrested on February 17 when a drug-sniffing dog at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport alerted to her luggage. In her bags, security officers found vape cartridges with cannabis oil, which is outlawed in Russia.
The eight-time WNBA All-Star who plays for Phoenix Mercury apologized, saying the cartridges ended up in her luggage by accident, as she was packing in a hurry. Griner was on her way to Ekaterinburg to play for a basketball team there in the WNBA offseason, as she had been doing since 2015.
Griner’s attorneys called the sentence “absolutely unreasonable” and said they would “certainly” appeal it. The court “completely ignored all the evidence of the defense” including Griner’s guilty plea, they added.
Moscow has categorically denied that Griner’s arrest had anything to do with politics, or the conflict in Ukraine which began a week later. Russian authorities have noted that she broke the law, and no exceptions could be made just because she’s a foreigner.