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Phoenix Mercury basketball player Brittney Griner was sentenced to 9 years for bringing cannabis into Russia A lawyer for the WNBA star at her drug possession trial in Russia gave the court a U.S. doctor’s letter recommending she use medical cannabis to treat pain. Medical marijuana is not legal in Russia.

Brittney Griner sentenced to 9 years for transporting cannabis vape cartridges into Russia

“I hope that in your ruling that it doesn’t end my life here,” Griner said prior to sentencing

By Kelly McClure

Published August 4, 2022 4:58PM (EDT)

WNBA basketball player Brittney Griner waits for verdict inside a defendants’ cage during a hearing in Khimki outside Moscow, on August 4, 2022. (EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

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Brittney Griner, a basketball player for the W.N.B.A. team The Phoenix Mercury, was sentenced to 9 years in a Russian penal colony after being found guilty of drug smuggling and possession charges. This sentencing comes nearly six months after Griner was detained at Sheremetyevo International Airport near Moscow where several cannabis vape cartridges were found amongst her belongings. Griner had traveled to Russia to compete with UMMC Ekaterinburg, a Russian women’s basketball team she’d been part of for the last seven years during her W.N.B.A off-season.

In NPR coverage of Griner’s sentencing they make clear that Russia has a conviction rate of 99% in their criminal courts, yet the judge’s ruling still registered as a shock to many weighing in on her sentencing via social media. For others, like Fox News commentator Tomi Lahren, the 9 year sentence registered as something else.

“Brittney Griner is a cautionary tale. Hate America? Think it’s oppressive? Go to another country, play stupid games and find out what oppression and “No justice” looks like,” says Lahren on Twitter. “Too bad too sad.”

“It seems like the Russians are doing to Griner what the Biden administration is doing to non-violent January 6 protesters,” Dinesh D’Souza said, in a similar frame of mind as Lahren. “Hard for us to feign indignation when the same thing is going on here!”

In a statement issued by President Joe Biden following Griner’s sentencing on Wednesday, he calls Russia’s detainment of the star athlete “unacceptable.”

“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 says at the start of his full 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.”

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Former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan is currently being held in Russia under suspicion of espionage, with the United States attempting to make a deal for his freedom, as well as Griner’s, in exchange for handing over convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout.

“We’ve made a serious proposal, made a serious offer, and we urge the Russians to take that offer because it was done with sincerity and we know we can back it up,” White House national security spokesman John Kirby told reporters during a briefing Tuesday, as reported on by The Hill. In that same report, a quote from Whelan sheds further light on what the next steps may be in terms of his possible exchange, as well as Griner’s.

“My assumption is … that it will be many months yet before we see any sort of outcome,” Whelan said in a phone interview reported on by The Hill. “I don’t know that the discussions will even start until after Ms. Griner’s case has been resolved.”

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In NPR’s coverage of Griner’s sentencing they highlight that “the basketball star was prescribed medical marijuana by a U.S. doctor to treat chronic pain in the offseason — and still had never failed a drug test.”

“What does this show?” said defense counsel Maria Blagovolina. “It shows that Brittney Griner used marijuana only at home and only in very small doses and that she had no intention to bring the substance into Russia.”

In earlier coverage by NPR they state that Griner admitted to “bringing cannabis into the country” but that she’d “packed in a hurry and did not intend to break the law.”

“Brittney Griner has been convicted and sentenced to 9 years in prison for bringing into Russia two cartridges of cannabis oil,” says Barb McQuade, legal analyst for NBC News and former US Attorney. “Russia is not our friend. It is a hostile foreign adversary preying on an innocent person as a political pawn as trade bait for a prisoner exchange.”

“Americans *should* be outraged that Russia sentenced Brittney Griner to 9 years in prison for a non-violent cannabis charge, echos Former Ohio State Senator, Nina Turner. “We should all speak out *and* reflect on the fact that many Black and brown Americans face similar sentences here.”

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Brittney Griner had a doctor’s note for cannabis use, her lawyer tells Russian court

WNBA star Brittney Griner speaks with her lawyers in the courtroom near Moscow on Friday.

KHIMKI, Russia — A lawyer for WNBA star Brittney Griner at her drug possession trial in Russia on Friday gave the court a U.S. doctor’s letter recommending she use medical cannabis to treat pain.

Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and standout for the Phoenix Mercury, was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February after customs officials said they found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage. She faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted on charges of transporting drugs.

World

Members of Brittney Griner’s Russian team defend her character, on and off the court

In court last week, Griner pleaded guilty and acknowledged possessing the canisters but said she had no criminal intent and said they were in her luggage because she packed hastily in her return to Russia to play for the UMMC Ekaterinburg basketball team during the WNBA’s offseason.

In Russia’s judicial system, admitting guilt doesn’t automatically end a trial. Since that plea, her court sessions have focused on in-person and written testimony to her good character and athletic prowess.

Griner wore a Nirvana T-shirt as she sat inside the defendant’s cage that is customary in Russian courtrooms. At one point, she held up a photo of fellow WNBA players wearing her name and No. 42 on their uniforms in tribute during part of Sunday’s All-Star Game in Chicago.

“The attending physician gave Brittney recommendations for the use of medical cannabis,” said her lawyer, Maria Blagovolina. “The permission was issued on behalf of the Arizona Department of Health.”

Medical marijuana is not legal in Russia.

The defense on Friday also submitted tests she underwent as part of an anti-doping check, which didn’t detect any prohibited substances in her system.

The next hearing of Griner’s case was scheduled for July 26.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have said they are doing all they could to win her release, as well as that of other Americans the U.S. considers “wrongly detained” by Russia, including former Marine Paul Whelan who is serving 16 years on an espionage conviction.

Consider This from NPR

What Will It Take To Get Brittney Griner Out Of Detention In Russia?

Washington may have little leverage with Moscow, though, because of strong animosity over its military operation in Ukraine.

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“In the hearings yesterday and today what became very clear is the tremendous amount of respect and admiration both in the United States and here in Russia where Miss Griner has been playing basketball for seven years, not only for her professional achievements but for her character and integrity,” U.S. Embassy charge d’affaires Elizabeth Rood said outside the courthouse in the Moscow suburb of Khimki, where the airport is located.

The director and team captain of UMMC Ektaerinburg testified on her behalf on Thursday.

Russian media have speculated that Griner could be swapped for Russian arms trader Viktor Bout, nicknamed “the Merchant of Death,” who is serving a 25-year sentence in the U.S. after being convicted of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organization.

Russia has agitated for Bout’s release for years. But the wide discrepancy in the seriousness of their cases could make such a trade unpalatable to Washington. Others have suggested that Griner could be traded along with Whelan, who is serving 16 years in Russia on an espionage conviction that the U.S. has described as a setup.

The State Department’s designation of Griner as wrongfully detained moves her case under the supervision of its special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, effectively the government’s chief hostage negotiator. The classification has irritated Russia.

Politics

As calls grow to free Brittney Griner, Biden says he’s spoken with her wife

Asked about the possibility of Griner being swapped for a Russian jailed in the U.S., Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, the senior Russian diplomat, has noted that until her trial is over “there are no formal or procedural reasons to talk about any further steps.”

Ryabkov warned that U.S. criticism, including the description of Griner as wrongfully detained and dismissive comments about the Russian judicial system, “makes it difficult to engage in detailed discussion of any possible exchanges.”

Griner’s detention has been authorized through Dec. 20, suggesting the trial could last months. Griner’s lawyers, however, said they expect it to conclude around the beginning of August.

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