A Russian court upholds WNBA star Brittney Griner’s nine-year prison sentence
A Russian court dismissed an appeal on Tuesday US basketball star Brittney Griner her nine-year sentence for drug possession, a move that could bring her closer to a possible blown-up prisoner swap between Moscow and Washington.
The eight-time All-Star center featuring the WNBA and two-time Olympic gold medalist Phoenix Mercury was sentenced Aug. 4 after police found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport.
Griner, 32, was not at the Moscow Regional Court hearing but appeared via video link from a penal colony outside the capital where she is being held.
At her trial, Griner admitted having the canisters in her luggage, but testified that she accidentally grabbed them in her rush to her flight and had no criminal intent. Her defense team produced written statements stating that her cannabis had been prescribed to treat chronic pain.
“It was a very traumatic experience waiting for that day, waiting for the first court and getting nine years for a crime where I barely got over the substantial amount,” Griner said at the hearing in Moscow on Tuesday . “I don’t understand the first court’s decision to give a year less than the maximum when I’ve been here almost 8 months and people with more serious crimes got less than what I was given… I really hope that’s that.” The court will adjust this ruling because being away from my family and not being able to communicate has been very, very stressful and very traumatic to my spirit and psyche.”
The nine-year sentence was close to the maximum of 10 years, and Griner’s attorneys argued after the sentencing that the sentence was excessive. They said defendants in similar cases have received an average sentence of about five years, with about a third of them being paroled.
While the sentence is upheld, the court said Griner’s prison time will be recalculated to reflect what she has already served in custody. A day in custody counts as 1 1/2 days in prison, so that she still has to serve about eight years in prison.
Griner’s lawyers, Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov, said in an email that they were “very disappointed” with the decision because they still believe “the penalty is excessive and contrary to established court practice.”
“Britthey’s biggest fear is that she won’t be exchanged and will have to serve the entire sentence in Russia,” they said. “She had hopes for today as every month, every day away from her family and friends is important to her.”
They said they needed to discuss with Griner what legal action to take next.
WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert called the court’s ruling “unfortunate” but “not unexpected.”
“We greatly appreciate the continued efforts of the administration and the U.S. State Department in conducting the negotiations,” Engelbert said in a statement. “It’s time to end this case and bring BG home.”
Griner’s arrest in February came at a time of heightened tensions between Moscow and Washington, just days before Russia deployed troops to Ukraine. It was then that Griner returned to play for a Russian team in the WNBA’s offseason.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the decision “another judicial failure that compounds the injustice of their detention,” adding that “their release is our priority.”
Prior to her sentencing, the US State Department declared Griner “unlawfully detained” — a charge Russia strongly denies.
US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said in a statement that US President Joe Biden “is ready to make extraordinary efforts and difficult decisions to bring Americans home.”
The WNBA Players Association said the ruling was “further confirmation that BG is not just wrongly imprisoned – she is clearly a hostage.”
Reflecting growing pressure on the Biden administration to do more to bring Griner home, Blinken took the unusual step of publicly revealing in July that Washington had made a “substantive proposal” to bring Griner home bring, along with Paul Whelan, an American serving a 16-year-old. year imprisonment in Russia for espionage.
Blinken didn’t elaborate, but The Associated Press and other news organizations have reported that Washington has offered to trade Griner and Whelan for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who is serving a 25-year sentence in the US and was once the has earned the nickname “Merchant of Death”.
The White House said it has not yet received a productive response from Russia to the offer.
Russian diplomats have declined to comment on the US proposal, urging Washington to discuss the matter in private and avoid public comment. However, some Russian officials have said an agreement is more likely once the appeals are exhausted.
In September, Biden met with Cherelle Griner, the player’s wife, Cherelle Griner, as well as her agent Lindsay Colas. Biden also sat down separately with Elizabeth Whelan, sister of Paul Whelan.
earlier this month, Cherelle Griner told CBS Mornings co-host Gayle King that she was afraid of the fate of the WNBA star.
“It’s like a movie to me. I think, ‘In no world did I ever think, you know, that our President and a President of a foreign nation have to sit down and discuss my wife’s freedom.’ And as much as everyone gives me a different definition of what BG is, it feels like she’s a hostage to me,” Cherelle said.
The White House said after the meetings that the president reassured the families of his “continued commitment to using all available avenues to bring Brittney and Paul home safely.”
The US and Russia held a prisoner exchange in April. Moscow released US Navy veteran Trevor Reed in exchange for the US releasing a Russian pilot, Konstantin Yaroshenko, convicted of drug trafficking conspiracy.
Moscow has also pushed for the release of other Russians in US custody.
One of them is Alexander Vinnik, who has been accused of laundering billions of dollars through an illegal cryptocurrency exchange. Vinnik was arrested in Greece in 2017 and extradited to the United States in August.
Vinnik’s French lawyer, Frederic Belot, told Russian newspaper Izvestia last month that his client hopes to be part of a possible swap.
The newspaper speculated that another possible candidate was Roman Seleznev, the son of a Russian MP. He was sentenced to 27 years in prison in 2017 for hacking and credit card fraud.