President Joe Biden said Thursday that the guilty verdict and nine-year sentence handed by a Russian court to American basketball star Brittney Griner is “unacceptable,” calling for her immediate release.
“My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely,” Biden said.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who discussed a proposal to bring the American detainees home with his Russian counterpart last week, said Griner’s sentencing “further compounds the injustice of her wrongful detention.”
“This step puts a spotlight on our significant concerns with Russia’s legal system and the Russian government’s use of wrongful detentions to advance its own agenda, using individuals as political pawns,” Blinken said.
The 31-year-old was sentenced to nine years in Russian prison Thursday, after she was found guilty of possession and smuggling of cannabis oil.
Attention is now expected to turn to the possibility of a high-stakes prisoner swap proposed by the Biden administration that would involve both Griner and Whelan, a former U.S. Marine detained in 2018 in Russia of espionage charges. The proposed trade would also include Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
Terri Jackson, executive director of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association, urged the Biden administration to keep pushing a deal with Russia.
“You need no formal meeting,” Jackson said Thursday on MSNBC. “We need a win. And we’re counting on you to have that conversation, and begin to put these wheels in motion.”
Before the unusually quick verdict was announced, Griner made a final appeal to the court . She said she had no intention to break the law by bringing vape cartridges with cannabis oil when she flew to Moscow in February to play basketball in the city of Yekaterinburg.
Griner’s translator whispered to her through the bar’s of the defendant’s cage what was rapidly read out by the judge.
Under Russian law, Griner faced up to 10 years in prison. Prosecutors requested a 9½-year term.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.