‘Release Her Immediately’: Biden Demands Russia Free WNBA Star After Sentencing

‘Release Her Immediately’: Biden Demands Russia Free WNBA Star After Sentencing

President Joe Biden is demanding that Russia release WNBA star Brittney Griner after the American was sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison on Thursday.

Griner, convicted of deliberately smuggling vape cartridges with cannabis oil into Russia, acknowledged bringing the contraband into the country but said it was an accident. Following Griner’s sentencing Thursday, Biden released a statement blasting Russia for its actions.

“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,” Biden said in a statement. “It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates.”

Maria Blagovolina, a lawyer on Griner’s defense team, argued that Griner brought the cartridges to Russia by mistake and only used cannabis as medicine and only while in Arizona, where medical marijuana is legal.

The Biden administration had previously tried to exchange “Merchant of Death” — arms dealer Viktor Bout — for Griner and American Paul Whelan to no avail. According to White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, Russia made a “bad faith” counter-offer in response to the U.S. government’s proposed deal to free Griner and Whelan.

“My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible,” Biden added Thursday.

Prior to her conviction, Griner asked Russian authorities to offer mercy.

“I never meant to hurt anybody, I never meant to put in jeopardy the Russian population, I never meant to break any laws here,” Griner said. “I made an honest mistake and I hope that in your ruling that it doesn’t end my life here. I know everybody keeps talking about political pawn and politics, but I hope that that is far from this courtroom.”

Griner, who plays for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, had flown to Russia to finish her season for UMMC Ekaterinburg when she was arrested. The team competes in the Russian Premier League and FIBA Europe’s EuroLeague. WNBA players can make far bigger salaries playing in Europe and Asia during the league’s off-season than they can earn in the United States, where interest in women’s basketball is limited.

Greg Wilson contributed to this report.

RELATED: ‘The Merchant Of Death’ For Griner And Whelan: Why The Russian Prisoner Swap Is A Risky Deal