President Joe Biden, members of Congress, and LGBTQ+ activists are speaking out against the sentence imposed on Brittney Griner by a Russian court Thursday.
The lesbian WNBA star was sentenced to nine years in prison on charges of smuggling drugs with criminal intent. The center for the Phoenix Mercury, Griner was arrested at a Russian airport in February, when she arrived in the country to play for one of its basketball teams during the WNBA off-season. There were vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage; cannabis is illegal in Russia.
She has testified that she brought the substance in by accident and that she did not intend to break any laws. She had pleaded guilty to the charges in hopes of getting a lighter sentence than the 10-year maximum. The U.S. State Department considers her “wrongfully detained” and has been working to free her, possibly with a prisoner swap.
President Biden released this statement: “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. 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.” Whelan is a former marine convicted on espionage charges in Russia — charges he says are false.
Kierra Johnson, executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, issued this statement: “This sentence is 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 did not intend to break any laws. Her case has mobilized millions of people — not just fans but anyone concerned with human rights.
“It is time for the U.S. government to do everything they can to bring Brittney home. The trial is over. More serious negotiations to bring her home safely must begin now. We must advance the negotiations in process, out of concern for her safety and to get her home to her wife and family as soon as possible.
“To be clear: Brittney has played for both countries; she has helped build bridges, she is not someone who should be detained for this long on a minor charge. She helped Russia win championship league trophies and she has helped U.S. win Olympics; she is beloved in Russia and in the U.S., where her family wants her to come home.
“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. With tensions between the U.S. 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 a government that 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 U.S., now in the hands of the Biden Administration and the State Department. Bring Brittney home!
“We support her appeal and stand with Brittney and her family, friends and supporters.
“Brittney said it best in a recent letter to President Biden: '[As] 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…'
“For her sake and for all those who care about Brittney, we urge the Biden Administration to do all they can to make sure she is returned to us as soon as possible.”
The Congressional LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus also condemned what it called the “unjust sentencing” of Griner. “Every day that Brittney Griner remains in detention in Russia is a reminder of Putin’s contempt for human rights, human dignity, and the law. Griner is a proud member of the LGBTQI+ community, and our community stands in solidarity with her,” said a statement issued by U.S. Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island, who chairs the caucus. “The Biden Administration must continue working to bring Griner back home safely. She needs to be released immediately and her safety must remain a top priority.”
Human Rights Campaign Interim President Joni Madison had this to say: “Over the past several months, the world has watched with growing concern as Brittney Griner — an American hero who is so much more than a WNBA superstar and Olympian — continues to be unlawfully detained in Russia. We join with so many of Brittney’s loved ones — her friends, teammates, and family — in sending her support as she endures this unimaginable hardship, so far from home.
“Today’s harsh sentencing is merely the latest example of how she is being used as a political pawn — and it has to stop. It is long past time that we bring Brittney home and we support the Biden administration’s efforts to do so.”
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