After more than six months of incarceration since her February arrest for having less than one gram of cannabis oil in her luggage at a Russian airport, eight-time WNBA All-Star Brittney Griner was sentenced to nine years in prison on Thursday for drug possession and smuggling. That harsh but expected final decision on Griner’s case is her final scheduled court appearance.
How long Griner will stay in a Russian prison is now solely dependent on diplomatic relations between America and Russia. As noted by the Associated Press, a conviction is usually a prerequisite to arranging a prisoner exchange and also allows the WNBA star to apply for a presidential pardon. A swap between the countries freeing Griner and former US Marine Paul Whelan, detained under accusations of espionage, in exchange for convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout. Bloomberg reported that Russian officials are leaning toward rejecting that proposal in hopes of getting two Russians in any Griner trade.
“Today, American citizen Brittney Griner received a prison sentence that is one more reminder of what the world already knew: Russian is wrongfully detaining Brittney,” President Joe Biden said in a statement. “It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates. My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible.”
Per Bloomberg, discussions of a prisoner swap between the United States and Russia have been ongoing since June. Of course, the work of the Federal government is largely confidential information and her day-to-day status will largely go unchanged until a deal is reached. Griner’s detainment is particularly difficult because of Russia’s ongoing brutal war against Ukraine. The State Department also considers any Russian legal action taken against Griner or Whelan to be irrelevant domestically.
Griner is likely viewed as a powerful asset to Russian president Vladimir Putin and she may be a hostage in response to American sanctions against the country because of its needless invasion. The longtime Phoenix Mercury star flew to Moscow to join her Euro League team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, in February when she was detained. Griner has spent her international career in Russia since 2014, earning over $1 million per season, more than quadruple her yearly WNBA salary.
While a Russian judge said Griner’s time already spent in prison would count toward a 9-year sentence, America’s endgame is now clear with foreign negotiations the only way to free the Phoenix Mercury star.
Despite her incarceration, Griner was the focal point of the WNBA’s All-Star game last month, being named an honorary selection to the showcase. Players all wore her No. 42 on their jerseys to start the second half, every player’s warmups had her name and number on the back and Griner’s wife, Cherelle, was sitting courtside.
I think my Deadspin colleague Carron Phillips sums up Griner’s horrible situation as tragically perfect as I’ve seen: “Black people have it hard. Black women have it harder. Black gay women have it the hardest. It’s tough being a triple minority in America, but especially in Russia.”