After being sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison, Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner’s appeal was rejected, meaning that unless a deal is made between the United States and Russia she will be spending the next nine years at Correctional Colony No. 1 or IK-1.
When it comes to WNBA players, Griner is one of the most recognizable in all of the sport. Standing at 6-foot-9 and drafted in 2013, she has made eight WNBA all-star games and won a championship in 2014, along with two gold medals in the Olympics.
Back on March 5, 2022, news broke of Griner’s detainment in Russia, where she had been playing basketball overseas for UMMC Ekaterinburg. On Feb. 17, she was stopped at the Sheremetyevo International Airport after a customs dog indicated there was something in her carry-on bag, which led to security finding vape cartridges containing cannabis oil, otherwise known as CBD oil.
Seven days following Griner’s arrest, Russia invaded Ukraine, which complicated Griner’s situation. The United States relationship with Russia changed drastically, as they are on opposing sides of this war. This gave Russia no incentive to go easy on Griner instead using her as leverage against the United States.
While CBD oil is legal in parts of the United States, including Phoenix, it is not legal in Russia. There, major offenses consist of fines of 40,000 roubles, 480 hours of compulsory labor or up to two years of corrective labor or three years of imprisonment. Russia has been known for its strict laws about drugs, and while Griner broke the law, it seems that the sentence is excessive compared to regular Russian laws. This is in part because she is not being charged with drug possession but rather smuggling drugs into Russia, which carries a five to 10-year prison sentence.
Griner ended up pleading guilty to the charges with the hope that the judge would take into account that Griner was taking full accountability for her actions, possibly resulting in a lesser sentence. She also hoped that her use of CBD oil for medical reasons could help her case.
“I’d like to plead guilty, your honor. But there was no intent. I didn’t want to break the law,” Griner said when addressing the judge.
Judge Anna Sotnikova, however, did not see it the way that Griner was hoping for, as she sentenced Griner to just under the maximum penalty of nine and a half years.
President Joe Biden has made it very clear that he believes that Russia is wrongfully detaining Griner and has repeatedly called for her immediate release.
One of the reasons that Griner’s sentence is so long might have something to do with Russia’s notorious stance on the LGBTQ+ community. While technically legal in Russia since 1993, it has been no secret that Russia does not support the LGBTQ+ community.
Many have also speculated that the reason for Griner’s imprisonment is to try and make a prisoner exchange happen with the United States. The name that has been thrown around in terms of a prisoner swap is convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout, but the U.S. is also asking for the release of marine Paul Whelan, who is currently serving a 16-year sentence for spying.
As of now Griner remains in Russia to serve her sentence, but there is hope that she and Whelan will be freed by the end of the year. However, we will have to wait and see how this plays out, as there is no guarantee that either will be released.