U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the nine-year sentence given to WNBA star Brittney Griner “compounds the injustice” she has gone through in Russia since her arrest earlier this year.
“It puts a spotlight on our very significant turn with Russia’s legal system and the Russian government’s use of wrongful detentions to advance its own agenda using individuals as political pawns,” Blinken said Friday at a meeting with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Cambodia.
Griner was convicted Thursday, sentenced to nine years in prison and fined 1 million rubles (about $16,700). She had been arrested Feb. 17 at a Moscow airport after vape cartridges containing cannabis oil were found in her luggage.
The verdict and sentencing were expected steps toward a swap to bring Griner back to the United States, as Russia was not going to move forward with a trade until her trial was completed.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov appeared to confirm that Friday when he said Russia was ready to discuss a prisoner swap in private. Lavrov said President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden had previously agreed on a diplomatic channel that should be used to negotiate a possible exchange.
“We are ready to discuss this topic, but within the framework of the channel that was agreed upon by presidents Putin and Biden,” Lavrov said in Cambodia. “If the Americans decide to once again resort to public diplomacy … that is their business and I would even say that it is their problem.”
Blinken has suggested the possibility of a prisoner swap for Griner and another American jailed in Russia, Paul Whelan. Sources have told ESPN’s T.J. Quinn that a deal would also involve convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is serving a 25-year prison term in the United States.
White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said Thursday after Griner’s sentencing that the United States had made Russia a serious proposal without providing further detail.
“We urge them to accept it,” Kirby said. “They should have accepted it weeks ago when we first made it.”
Russia and the United States staged a prisoner swap in April, trading former Marine Trevor Reed for Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was serving a 20-year sentence in the United States. American officials had sought that exchange after Reed was reported to be in poor health, and it was viewed as a sign by Griner’s supporters of an open diplomatic channel between the two countries.
In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on the court’s ruling on Griner. Asked whether she could be pardoned, he said that the clemency procedure was coded in Russian laws.
Griner’s defense lawyers have also said they would appeal. The defense team said that in sentencing, the court had ignored all evidence it had presented and Griner’s guilty plea.
Biden called Griner’s sentence “unacceptable” Thursday and called on Russia “to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates.”
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.