Brittney Griner Sentenced in Russia, but Still Hope for Release

Jonathan Buscher

Detained in the Moscow airport on February 17, 2022, shortly before war broke out between Russia and Ukraine, Brittney Griner concluded her trial around six months later, the sentence of which was surprising to legal experts. 

Griner was arrested for allegedly smuggling a gram of cannabis oil, which by Russian law is considered a controlled narcotic, into the country. During her trial, which began on July 1, the basketball player pleaded guilty, claiming that she had packed her bags in a rush, having no intention of bringing or using the medicinal marijuana in Russia. The evidence presented included documents from the US Medical Center in 2020 prescribing Griner the drug to treat chronic pain suffered from basketball injuries. Despite her guilty plea, lack of intent, and apology, Brittney Griner still received a sentence of nine years in a Russian penal colony by Judge Anna Sotnikova on August 4, 2022, in the Khimki regional court. Following this, Griner’s legal team planned to appeal the court’s ignorance of evidence, especially considering that, after being arrested in Moscow, Griner claims to have been forced to sign documents she didn’t understand, being prevented from using her phone for translation. 

Prior to her arrest and sentencing in Russia, Griner was a WNBA star, being drafted by the Phoenix Mercury in 2013, and immediately had an impact on the team, with their championship victory in 2014. Continuing with her talent, Brittney had the highest points per game for the WNBA in 2017 and 2019, along with helping the US team win gold in both the 2016 and 2020 Olympics. During the offseason, however, Griner played for UMMC Ekaterinburg, a Russian Premier League team starting in 2015. It was upon arriving in Russia to play for this team that she was detained.  

Given this status as a WNBA star, after substantial debate and opposition from the Department of Justice, the Biden Administration has reportedly proposed a trade of Russian prisoner Viktor Bout for Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, who was accused four years ago of alleged espionage. Bout, on the other hand, is a former Soviet officer and convicted arms dealer currently serving a 25-year prison sentence, with the nickname the “Merchant of Death.” Although the U.S. is traditionally resistant to prisoner exchanges, President Biden directly advocated for this proposal, especially given the current situation with Ukraine. With American and Russian sides taking the trade as a serious offer, Brittney Griner has some hope of an early release.