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A Russian court on Thursday sentenced Brittney Griner, a WNBA basketball star and Houston native, to nine years in prison for smuggling illegal drugs into that country.
Griner pleaded guilty to the charges last month and apologized for the incident, calling it an “honest mistake.”
The ruling is the latest grim development in a saga that began in February, when Russian authorities arrested Griner on the eve of that country’s unprovoked invasion into Ukraine.
Griner’s allies remain hopeful President Joe Biden will secure a prisoner swap for her release, much like he did earlier this year with another Texan, ex-Marine Trevor Reed.
The notoriously harsh conditions of Russian prisons has added to the diplomatic urgency. But there are also specific concerns about the treatment of Griner, who is gay, in a country known for homophobic persecution. Last month, Biden administration officials offered to exchange Griner and Paul Whelan, another American held in Russia, for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms trafficker imprisoned in the U.S.
Biden released a statement after the sentencing.
“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,” he said. “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.”
Griner entered the country in February and was arrested for bringing less than a gram of cannabis oil in vape cartridges into the country. Griner apologized during Thursday’s proceedings, saying she accidentally rushed her packing to play professional basketball in Russia and “had no intent to break Russian law.”
Griner was a star on the Baylor University Lady Bears basketball team from 2009-13. She has played for the Phoenix Mercury since the 2013 draft, but also played basketball in China and Russia during the offseasons.
While she resides in Phoenix, several Texas congressional delegation members have remained in close contact with the State Department over this matter. U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, who represents the Houston area where Griner grew up, and U.S. Rep. Colin Allred — a fellow Baylor University athlete and member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee — are closely engaged with securing her release.
Disclosure: Baylor University has been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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