(NewsNation) — A Russian court on Thursday sentenced WNBA star Brittney Griner to nine years in prison for drug possession and smuggling.
Griner was convicted of “deliberately” bringing narcotics into the country with criminal intent in a politically charged case that could lead to a high-stakes prisoner exchange between Washington and Moscow.
A Russian state prosecutor had requested 9 1/2 years in prison — short of the maximum of 10 years — for Griner, who said in her closing remarks that bringing vape cartridges containing cannabis oil into Russia had been “an honest mistake.”
Most Russians possessing small quantities of drugs get at most five years in prison, lawyers said.
Judge Anna Sotnikova said the time Griner has served in custody since her arrest in February would count toward the sentence.
Sotnikova also fined Griner 1 million rubles (about $16,700).
“Today’s sentencing of Brittney Griner was severe by Russian legal standards and goes to prove what we have known all along, that Brittney is being used as a political pawn,” Griner’s agent Lindsay Colas posted on social media shortly after the sentencing.
Griner was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on Feb. 17 with vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage. She pleaded guilty but said she had neither intended to bring a banned substance to Russia nor to hurt anybody.
31-year-old Griner, a two-time U.S. Olympic champion and an eight-time all-star with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, apologized in court and pleaded with a Russian judge before her sentencing not to “end her life.”
Griner’s lawyers said they would appeal a verdict. Her defense team said the court had ignored all evidence they had presented, as well as Griner’s guilty plea.
Attention now centers on a potential high-profile prisoner swap still in play between Russia and the United States that would include Griner and an imprisoned Russian who was once a prolific arms dealer.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken proposed the potential swap to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Under the U.S. proposed deal, Griner and Paul Whelan, an American imprisoned in Russia on an espionage conviction, would go free in exchange for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, also known as the “merchant of death.”
Bout is serving a 25-year federal prison sentence in Illinois for conspiring to kill Americans and sell weapons to Colombian terrorists.
According to reports, Russia has given the U.S. a counteroffer that would add a convicted murderer to the deal.
Russian officials have remained poker-faced about a possible prisoner swap, saying it should be discussed through “quiet diplomacy without releases of speculative information.”
President Joe Biden said he will continue to work to bring Griner and Whelan home, denouncing Griner’s verdict and sentence as “unacceptable.”
“Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney,” Biden said in a statement. “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,” he said.
The U.S. Embassy’s charge d’affaires Elizabeth Rood called Griner’s verdict “a miscarriage of justice.”
WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver called the verdict and sentencing “unjustified and unfortunate, but not unexpected.”
“The WNBA and NBA’s commitment to her safe return has not wavered,” they said in a statement. “And it is our hope that we are near the end of this process of finally bringing BG home to the United States.”
Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.