By Tadi Abedje
Black News & Views
A Russian court found WNBA star Brittney Griner guilty on Thursday on charges of drug possession and smuggling, according to multiple sources.
Griner was sentenced to nine years, NBC News was reporting.
In video of her testimony from the courtroom, Griner asked for mercy, saying, “I made an honest mistake.”
President Biden issued a statement Thursday morning calling Griner’s conviction 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 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.”
The development comes almost a month after the 31-year-old Griner, detained at a Moscow airport in February, pleaded guilty to cannabis possession on July 7. In late July, Griner testified that she has a legal prescription for cannabis for help with chronic pain. The celebrated center for the Phoenix Mercury and Olympic gold medalist also has said that she packed in a hurry and had no intention to break Russian law.
The development comes amid revelations by the U.S. State Department that it was in discussions with Russia over swapping Griner and Paul Whelan, another American imprisoned in Russia, for Viktor Bout, a convicted arms dealer imprisoned at a federal facility in Marion, Illinois. In recent weeks, President Biden and First Lady Jill Biden telephoned Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, to offer support after Griner’s admirers stepped up pressures for the U.S. government to intervene.
“The president offered his support to Cherelle and Brittney’s family, and he committed to ensuring they are provided with all possible assistance while his administration pursues every avenue to bring Brittney home,” the White House said in a statement.
Griner, like several other WNBA stars, played for a Russian basketball team during the WNBA’s off season because the pay is much higher..
The case has drawn attention to the treatment of Black women overall and in the world of professional basketball. Griner was in Russia because – like several other WNBA players – she plays for a much higher salary with a Russia team during the WNBA off season.
Early on after Griner’s arrest, U.S. officials suggested that drawing attention to Griner’s case might make her more of a pawn in tensions between the United States and Russia. But last month, Griner’s wife said it was time to raise the volume on the push for Griner’s release. That increase precipitated the outreach from the White House.
She told the Rev. Al Sharpton on his radio show last month that she and her wife’s supporters intend to be relentless about pressing for her release.
“We’re never going to shut up about this until she’s back,” she said. “We’re never going to allow them to take their precious time because every second that goes by, BG is struggling.”
Also last week, a close friend of Griner’s dating back to high school spoke at a prayer vigil for Griner in front of the Russian Consulate in New York.
“We already know that she still has six months no matter what,” Janell Roy, a friend who refers to Griner as her sister, told a crowd of about 30.
She said she routinely texted daily with Griner and that Feb. 17, 1:55 p.m., marks the last time she received a text from Griner, who told Roy she was afraid.
“I kept texting her, ‘Are you OK? Are you OK?’ And I never got a response back,” Roy explained, voice breaking, saying that Griner’s lawyer later called her to tell her what happened.
“You stay somewhere that long, it messes with your mental health.”Janell Roy, longtime friend of Brittney Griner
“For everybody else, (Feb. 17) seems like one day; for me, Feb. 17 was the last day that I talked to my sister,” Roy continued. “I haven’t been in communication with her. I haven’t been able to talk to her. And it hurts. You think about something like that, your best friend, your sister. I knew her on Feb. 17 as a person. Who she comes out as when she leaves Russia, I don’t know who she is. You stay somewhere that long, it messes with your mental health. It changes you.”
Feb. 17 is the day Griner was arrested at a Moscow airport after Russian authorities alleged they found vape cartridges with hashish oil in her luggage. If convicted, Griner could face up to 10 years in prison for large-scale transportation of drugs. According to The Associated Press, less than one percent of defendants in Russian criminal cases are acquitted.
The State Department has classified her as “wrongfully detained.”
“We have no higher priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas,” the State Department said in an email. “The U.S. government will continue to provide appropriate support to Ms. Griner and her family. We will continue to press for her release.”
Griner’s lawyer, Alexander Boykov, could not be reached.
There have been calls from WNBA and NBA players, celebrities and other athletes for President Biden to bring Griner home – all under the umbrella of the #WeAreBG campaign. Perhaps, the person most impacted by the ongoing situation is Cherelle Griner, who told Sharpton, . She said “It’s gut wrenching that I can’t give my wife justice.”
Cherelle Griner continued, “I haven’t had a moment to be able to really know how she’s doing and because I’m her person, she’s gonna always try and write persuasively to make sure I don’t break because she knows I’m studying for my bar and she knows I have all these things going on.”
Cherelle Griner added, “She’s not okay but she’s trying her hardest to make sure that she makes it back home to me and the rest of our family.”
Griner says it’s important that the public press the White House and the U.S. government to bring her wife home.
“The only justice in this situation of being wrongfully detained is for our government to execute this deal,” Cherelle Griner said.
Roy, speaking at the New York prayer vigil, echoed Cherelle Griner’s sentiments, saying, “The only thing we’re asking as a family is that the administrations come together and work out something to let my sister come home.”
Griner has played with UMMC Ekaterinburg, a Russian women’s basketball team based in Siberia, since 2014. With the Russian team, she earns over more than $1 million per season – more than quadruple her WNBA salary.