Griner’s Appeal of Her Nine-year Sentence is Denied by a Russian Court
MOSCOW, Russia (AP) — A Russian court dismissed Brittney Griner’s appeal of her nine-year prison sentence for drug charges on Tuesday, bringing her closer to a high-stakes prisoner swap between Moscow and Washington.
The two-time Olympic gold medalist and eight-time all-star center for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury were convicted on Aug. 4 after police said they seized vape canisters carrying cannabis oil in her luggage at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport.
Griner, 32, did not attend the hearing at the Moscow Regional Court but appeared via video link from a correctional colony outside the capital where she is being kept.
Griner admitted to having the canisters in her suitcase during her trial but claimed she packed them accidently in her rush to catch her trip and had no illegal intent. Her defense team provided written declarations in which she stated that she had been prescribed cannabis to relieve chronic pain.
The nine-year sentence came close to the maximum of ten years, and Griner’s defenders contended that the punishment was disproportionate after his conviction. In similar cases, they noted, defendants received an average sentence of around five years, with about a third given parole.
While upholding the sentence, the court stated that Griner’s prison time will be revised to reflect her time in pre-trial detention. One day in pre-trial custody will be counted as one and a half days in prison, thus she will still be sentenced to about eight years in prison.
Griner’s lawyers, Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov wrote in an email that they were “extremely dissatisfied” with the judgment since “the punishment is harsh and defies normal court practice.”
“Brittney’s greatest concern is that she will not be swapped and will have to complete the remainder of her sentence in Russia,” they wrote. “She had hoped for today, because every month, every day away from her family and friends is important to her.”
They stated that they needed to consult with Griner about the following legal actions.
Griner’s detention in February happened at a moment when Moscow and Washington were at odds, just days before Russia sent soldiers into Ukraine. Griner was returning to play for a Russian team during the WNBA’s summer at the time.
The decision, according to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, is “another failure of justice, aggravating the unfairness of her confinement,” and “securing her release is our goal.”
Before her conviction, the US State Department proclaimed Griner to have been “wrongfully held,” an accusation that Russia has categorically denied.
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According to US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, US President Joe Biden “is willing to go to tremendous lengths and make difficult judgments to bring Americans home.”
According to the WNBA Players Association, the verdict “further validates that BG is not simply unfairly incarcerated — she is very certainly a hostage.”
In response to mounting 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 “substantial proposal” to bring Griner and Paul Whelan, an American serving a 16-year sentence in Russia for espionage, home.
Blinken did not clarify, but The Associated Press and other news organizations have reported that Washington has offered to swap Griner and Whelan for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer serving a 25-year term in the United States who was previously known as the “merchant of death.”
The White House stated that it has yet to get a constructive response to the offer from Russia.
Russian diplomats have refused to comment on the US plan and have asked Washington to debate the topic in private rather than publicly. However, some Russian officials have stated that a deal is more feasible when all appeals have been exhausted.
Biden met with the player’s wife, Cherelle Griner, and her agent, Lindsay Colas, in September. Biden also met with Elizabeth Whelan, Paul Whelan’s sister, separately.
Following the discussions, the White House stated that the president reiterated to the families his “continued commitment to working through all possible avenues to bring Brittney and Paul home safely.”
In April, the United States and Russia exchanged prisoners. In exchange for the release of a Russian pilot, Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was convicted in a cocaine trafficking conspiracy, Moscow released US Marines veteran Trevor Reed.
Moscow has also advocated for the release of other Russians detained in the United States.
Alexander Vinnik, for example, has been accused of laundering billions of dollars through an illegal cryptocurrency exchange. Vinnik was detained in Greece in 2017 and extradited to the United States in August.
Last month, Vinnik’s French lawyer, Frederic Belot, informed the Russian publication Izvestia that his client wished to be involved in a future swap.
Another possible candidate, according to the publication, is Roman Seleznev, the son of a Russian legislator. In 2017, he was sentenced to 27 years in jail on charges related to a hacking and credit card fraud conspiracy.