Brittney Griner was found guilty of drug charges and sentenced to nine years in prison by a Russian court on Thursday, as the U.S. government tries to secure her release.
Griner was also fined $16,301 by the court.
Griner, 31, who plays professional basketball in Russia in the offseason, was arrested in February at a Russian airport on allegations that she was smuggling vape cartridges containing cannabis oil.
By law, she was subject to a maximum sentence of ten years. After closing arguments, Russian prosecutors asked the court to give her a sentence of nine-and-a-half years and to levy a one million ruble fine.
Griner requested the court’s forgiveness in court earlier on thursday.
“I never meant to hurt anybody,” Griner said following closing arguments, according to NBC News. “I never meant to put in jeopardy the Russian population. I never meant to break any laws here.”
Griner’s lawyers have previously said she only uses cannabis medically and never used it in Russia.
Griner pleaded guilty to the charges last month, but said she had packed the cannabis canisters in her suitcase by accident because she was in a hurry.
The court’s decision comes one week after the Biden administration confirmed it had offered Griner and former Marine Paul Whelan’s release to the Russian government. Joe Biden called Griner’s prison sentence “unacceptable” and demanded that he be freed immediately in a statement issued Thursday.
“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 wrote in a statement.
“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 added.
The U.S. presented a substantial proposal for Griner and Whelan’s release “a few weeks ago,” according to Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Top U.S. diplomat John Kerry said he would also discuss the offer with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, making it the first time they would talk since the Kremlin invaded Ukraine.
“This is delicate work,” National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters during a White House press briefing. “We’ve made a proposal, and we urge the Russians to move positively on that proposal so we can get these two individuals home.”
“The details of it, I think are best left between us and our Russian counterparts,” Kirby said.
‘I’m terrified I might be here forever’
Several days before she pleaded guilty last month, Griner wrote Biden asking for direct assistance.
“I sit here in a Russian prison, alone with my thoughts and without the protection of my wife, family, friends, Olympic jersey, or any accomplishments, I’m terrified I might be here forever,” wrote the professional athlete on July 5.
“I realize you are dealing with so much, but please don’t forget about me and … other American detainees. Please do all you can to bring us home,” Griner wrote.
Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris called the WNBA player’s wife, Cherelle Griner, after receiving the letter. A response from Biden to Griner was also delivered to Moscow by U.S. diplomats.
Biden had a conversation with Griner and told her he is doing his best to release her soon. Additionally, he said on the call that he is working to release Whelan, who is imprisoned in Russia and serving a 16-year sentence.
He was arrested in 2018 on charges of spying for the United States when he was visiting Russia to attend a wedding, according to his brother, David Whelan.
Just last month, Biden signed an executive order that will help deter wrongful hostage-taking and unlawful detention of U.S. nationals.
The executive order, called “Bolstering Efforts to Bring Hostages and Wrongfully Detained United States Nationals Home,” imposes financial sanctions and visa bans on hostage-takers.
“This executive order reflects the administration’s commitment not just to the issues generally but to the families in particular, and it has been informed by the government’s regular engagements with them,” said a senior Biden administration official last month, who asked not to be identified in discussing details of the new executive order.
Former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed was released by Russia in an exchange of prisoners with the United States in April.
Reed has been sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison after assaulting a Russian police officer in 2019. The U.S. government has described Reed as unjustly imprisoned, and his family maintains his innocence.
Biden agreed to release Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was serving a 20-year prison sentence for smuggling cocaine into the United States.