US star jailed for NINE years on drug charges as Joe Biden slams ‘unacceptable’ Russia detention

US basketball player Brittney Griner has been sentenced to prison in Russia. (Photo by Natalia KOLESNIKOVA / AFP)Source: AFP
Tyson Otto from News.com.au

American President Joe Biden has taken a swipe at Russia after basketball star Brittney Griner was sentenced to nine years in jail by a Russian court.

The two-time Olympic basketball gold medallist and Women’s NBA champion, who had played in Russia, was detained in February, just days before Moscow launched its military intervention in Ukraine.

The 31-year-old athlete was charged with drug smuggling for possessing vape cartridges with cannabis oil.

On Friday morning (AEST), the Khimki city court found Griner guilty on charges of possession and smuggling and sentenced her to nine years in jail.

She was also fined more than $23,000.

Judge Anna Sotnikova said the time Griner has served in custody since her arrest would count toward the sentence.

The sentence was just six months less than the sentence prosecutors had asked the court to hand down.

Griner earlier in the day made a final appeal to the court and made an apology to her team and her family. She said she had made “an honest mistake” and begged the court for its sentence to “not end my life”.

“I want the court to understand that this was an honest mistake that I made while rushing, under stress, trying to recover from COVID and just trying to get back to my team,” Griner said.

“I know everybody keeps talking about political pawn and politics, but I hope that is far from this courtroom.

“I made an honest mistake and I hope that in your ruling, that it doesn’t end my life here.”

Brittney Griner holds a picture of her team as she stands inside a defendants' cage. Photo by EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA / POOL / AFP.Source: AFP

Brittney Griner of the Phoenix Mercury. Photo by Christian Petersen / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / AFP.Source: AFP

Her future now rests in diplomatic discussions between the United States and Russia.

The White House release a statement on behalf of Biden minutes later, condemning Griner’s sentencing.

“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,” the statement read. “It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates.”

Biden vowed to “work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue” to bring Griner and American Paul Whelan, who is also jailed in Russia on an espionage conviction, home “as soon as possible”.

Griner’s WNBA team, the Phoenix Mercury, called her conviction and imprisonment a “nightmare”.

“While we know it was never the legal process that was going to bring our friend home, today’s verdict is a sobering milestone in the 168-day nightmare being endured by our sister, BG,” the Mercury said in a statement.

The club said it was “heartbroken” for Griner but remained “confident in the public servants working every day to return her to her family and us”.

“We will not allow her to be forgotten. We are BG,” the Mercury added.

Griner is facing years in prison. (Photo by Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV / POOL / AFP)Source: AFP

Griner’s lawyer Maria Blagovolina earlier this week confirmed negotiations are happening behind the scenes but stressed the basketballer’s legal team has not ben involved.

She added, however, Griner would be eligible for an exchange after the verdict.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken last week held his first talks with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov since Moscow sent troops to Ukraine on February 24.

Blinken said he “pressed the Kremlin” to accept a proposal from Washington for the release of Griner and Whelan.

Griner was detained when she came to Russia to play club basketball with UMMC Ekaterinburg during the US off-season — a common path for American stars seeking additional income.

At a previous hearing, Griner said she did not intend to break the law or use the banned substance in Russia.