Outrage as Russian court sentences Brittney Griner to years in jail


brittney griner joe biden lesbian basketballer wrongful detention russia
Images: Gage Skidmore/Flickr (left), Lorie Shaull/Wikimedia Commons (right)

US President Joe Biden and others have blasted the Kremlin for using lesbian basketballer Brittney Griner as a “political pawn” after a Russian court sentenced her to nine years in prison.

Griner has been detained in Russia since February 17, a week before the country invaded Ukraine.

Russian authorities charged her with drug smuggling for bringing vape cartridges infused with a small amount of cannabis into Moscow.

The 31-year-old two-time Olympic gold medallist pleaded guilty but maintained she had unintentionally broken Russian law.

In an address to court Griner said she’d made “an honest mistake” and begged the court for the sentence to “not end my life”.

On Friday, a Russian judge handed down the prison sentence, which also included a $23,000 fine.

President Joe Biden denounced the “unacceptable” ruling and reiterated Russia is wrongfully detaining the athlete.

“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. I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates.”

President Biden also added his administration would work “tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue” to bring both Griner and American Paul Whelan, also jailed in Russia on a disputed espionage conviction, home “as soon as possible”.

Russia is using Brittney Griner as ‘political pawn’

Griner’s agent Lindsay Kagawa Colas said Russia is using the basketballer as a “political pawn”. Colas described the sentence as “severe by Russian legal standards.”

“Today’s sentencing … proves what we have known all along, that Brittney is being used as a political pawn,” she said.

“We appreciate and continue to support the efforts of [the Biden Administration] to get a deal done swiftly to bring Brittney, Paul and all Americans home.

“Bringing Brittney and Paul home is the sole objective, and as such, we should use all available tools. We must remain focused and unified.

“Getting a deal done to bring Americans home will be hard. But it is urgent and it is the right thing to do.”

‘We all know the real reason for this trial’

National LGBTQ Taskforce executive director Kierra Johnson also denounced Griner’s sentence as “both excessive and wrong”.

“We have watched for months as Brittney Griner has been used as a political pawn. Even as she has made clear that she didn’t intend to break any laws,” she said.

Johnson demanded the US government “do everything they can to bring Brittney home.”

“The trial is over. More serious negotiations to bring her home safely must begin now,” Johnson said.

“We must advance negotiations … for her safety and to get her home to her wife and family as soon as possible.”

Johnson said the lesbian basketballer has played for both Russia and the US and is “beloved in both countries”.

“She has helped build bridges. She’s not someone who should be detained for this long on a minor charge,” she said.

“She helped Russia win championship league trophies and she has helped US win Olympics.”

“We all know the real reason for this trial and the way Russia had handled her detention: their transparent attempt to give themselves legitimacy and threaten the U.S. and other countries they are in conflict with by holding her for as long as necessary and refusing to negotiate any return,”

“Brittney Griner has been caught in the middle of the conflict and sanctions imposed on Russia.

‘We will not stop advocating for her release’

Johnson pointed out tensions between the US and Russia are at the highest they have been in decades.

“We have seen the lives of Brittney and others like Paul Whelan have their futures and lives held on the whim of [the Russian government].

“[The Russian government] is using them as leverage to retaliate against sanctions and the international condemnation for their actions.

“We will not stop advocating for her release and return to the US. We support her appeal and stand with Brittney and her family, friends and supporters.”

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