President Joe Biden has called on Moscow to release Brittney Griner and said the United States will continue to secure the freedom of the WNBA star, who was sentenced to nine years in prison by a Russian judge last week.
“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 said in a statement on Thursday.
Earlier that day, Griner was found guilty on drug charges stemming from her February arrest in a Moscow airport. The prosecutor in the case asked the court to sentence Griner to nine-and-a-half years; the judge gave her nine.
“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,” Biden said in his statement following the guilty verdict.
Griner was arrested on February 17 while traveling back to compete for the Russian women’s basketball team UMMC Ekaterinburg, for whom she has played since 2014 during the WNBA’s offseason. Officials at the airport found cannabis oil in Griner’s luggage, leading to the drug charges.
Her detention has created a diplomatic standoff between the U.S. and Russia, with the two sides negotiating a potential prisoner exchange in recent days. Late last month, the Biden administration proposed the release of Griner and Paul Whelan, a U.S. citizen who has been imprisoned on espionage charges in Russia since 2018, in exchange for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer currently serving a 25-year prison sentence in the United States.
Russia reportedly rejected that offer.
In his statement last week, Biden pledged to secure the release of both Griner and Whelan.
“My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible,” the president said.
Appearing in court hours before she was sentenced on Thursday, Griner, a star for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, apologized for the incident in February. She previously pleaded guilty to the charges, but said she did not intend to break the law.
“I want to apologize to my teammates, my club, my fans and the city of (Yekaterinburg) for my mistake that I made and the embarrassment that I brought on them,” Griner said, as quoted by the Associated Press. “I want to also apologize to my parents, my siblings, the Phoenix Mercury organization back at home, the amazing women of the WNBA, and my amazing spouse back at home.”
Griner also spoke of her experience playing professionally in Russia.
“I had no idea that the team, the cities, the fans, my teammates would make such a great impression on me over the 6 1/2 years that I spent here,” she said, according to the Associated Press. “I remember vividly coming out of the gym and all the little girls that were in the stands there waiting on me, and that’s what kept making me come back here.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned Griner’s conviction last week.
“It puts a spotlight on our very significant turn 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 Friday, as quoted by ESPN.
Blinken’s counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, alluded to the discussions of a prisoner swap with the U.S., saying that Russia was prepared to negotiate.
“We are ready to discuss this topic, but within the framework of the channel that was agreed upon by presidents Putin and Biden,” Lavrov said, as quoted by ESPN. “If the Americans decide to once again resort to public diplomacy … that is their business and I would even say that it is their problem.”