(CNN) — After a Russian court sentenced Brittney Griner, the star of the WNBA, the women’s basketball league in the United States, to nine years in prison for drug trafficking on Thursday, the player’s fans, her teammates and numerous US officials were quick to condemn the decision, many concerned that his detention is being used to further Russia’s agenda in the Ukraine War.
Now, Griner has returned to the detention center where he remained during his weeks-long trial as his attorneys vow to appeal the sentence and the Biden administration tries to negotiate his release.
During the trial, Griner pleaded guilty to carrying less than 1 gram of cannabis oil in his luggage while traveling through a Moscow airport on February 17. He testified in court that he was aware of Russia’s strict anti-drug laws and that he had no intention of bringing cannabis into the country, arguing that he was in a hurry and “stress packed.”
His attorneys hoped Griner’s guilty plea and claims of remorse would result in a more lenient sentence. She faced up to 10 years on the charges and prosecutors requested that she be sentenced to 9.5 years in prison. In addition to his nine-year sentence, Griner must pay a fine of 1 million rubles, or about $16,400.
“I made an honest mistake and I hope that in his decision I don’t end my life here,” Griner said in court before the verdict. “I know everyone keeps talking about political pawns and politics, but I hope that is far from this courtroom.”
The US State Department has classified Griner as wrongfully detained. The Biden administration has offered to trade a convicted Russian arms dealer for Griner and another American detainee, Paul Whelan, CNN previously reported.
Following the verdict, Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, tweeted: “Today’s sentence of Brittney Griner was severe by Russian legal standards and demonstrates what we have known all along, that Brittney is being used as a political pawn.” .
In a statement, President Joe Biden called the sentence “unacceptable” and demanded that she be returned to the United States to be reunited with her family.
Here’s what’s next for Griner as he awaits an appeal from his lawyers and the US continues to negotiate his release.
Lawyers will appeal the verdict
Griner’s legal team will file an appeal of the court’s decision, which they must do within 10 days of the verdict, according to their attorneys, Alexander Boykov and Maria Blagovolina, a partner at the Rybalkin, Gortsunyan, Dyakin and Partners law firm.
“We are very disappointed with the verdict. As legal professionals, we believe that the court should be fair to everyone, regardless of nationality. The court completely ignored all of the defense’s evidence and, more importantly, the guilty plea,” they said in a statement.
They called the verdict “absolutely unreasonable” and insisted in the statement that the decision “contradicts existing legal practice” in Russia.
Blagovolina told reporters that the average jail time for these types of crimes is five years, adding that almost a third of those convicted get parole.
During the trial, attorneys argued that Griner’s detention was handled improperly. Ella Griner testified that she was forced to sign documents that she did not fully understand and that she was not given proper translations of the Russian documents.
A defense expert also testified that the examination of vape cartridges containing cannabis oil did not comply with Russian law.
The United States has proposed a prisoner exchange for the return of Griner
Last week, CNN reported that the Biden administration has proposed a prisoner swap, offering to trade a convicted Russian arms dealer for Griner and Whelan. Whelan, a US citizen and former Marine, received a 16-year prison sentence in 2018 on espionage charges after a trial the US deemed unfair.
After Griner’s sentencing, National Security Council coordinator John Kirby said “it’s up to the Russian side” whether the conviction will open the door to prisoner-exchange negotiations.
After the United States proposed a prisoner swap, Russia responded by requesting that convicted murderer Vadim Krasikov also be released, multiple sources familiar with the negotiations told CNN. The United States has not viewed the counteroffer as a legitimate proposal, in part because the request was made through an informal back channel.
Kirby reiterated Thursday that the US position remains that it wants Russia to “put the deal on the table because it’s good, it’s fair and it will help bring Paul (Whelan) and Brittney home.”
While US officials have long opposed prisoner swaps, the successful release of Trevor Reed, an American and former Marine who was imprisoned in Russia, drew bipartisan praise from lawmakers and was seen as a political victory for the Biden administration.
Family and supporters continue to fight for his return
The trade proposal comes after months of pressure from Griner’s family and members of the basketball community.
The star’s wife, Cherelle Griner, has been outspoken about wanting US officials to take more significant steps to bring her wife home. Days after Cherelle Griner expressed her frustration in an interview with CNN, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris called her to assure her that they were committed to securing her wife’s release, according to a White House call readout. .
Griner has also had the constant support of his WNBA team, the Phoenix Mercury, as well as other members of the basketball community.
Before the start of a game Thursday night between the Mercury and the Connecticut Sun, members of both teams linked arms at center court and held a 42-second moment of silence for Griner, who wears that number. on his t-shirt. After the moment of silence ended, people in the crowd began shouting, “Bring her home! Bring her home!”
CNN’s Allie Malloy, Chris Liakos, Natasha Bertrand, Frederik Pleitgen, Eric Levenson, Dakin Andone, Travis Caldwell, Jill Martin, Betsy Klein, Kate Sullivan and MJ Lee contributed to this report.