A Russian court on Tuesday rejected an appeal by U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner of her nine-year prison sentence for drug possession, a step that could move her closer to a possible high-stakes prisoner swap between Moscow and Washington.
The eight-time all-star centre with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist was convicted Aug. 4 after police said they 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 held.
At her trial, Griner admitted to having the canisters in her luggage but testified she packed them inadvertently in her haste to make her flight and had no criminal intent. Her defense team presented written statements saying she had been prescribed cannabis to treat chronic pain.
The nine-year sentence was close to the maximum of 10 years, and Griner’s lawyers argued after the conviction that the punishment was excessive. They said in similar cases defendants have received an average sentence of about five years, with about a third of them granted parole.
While upholding the sentence, the court said Griner’s prison time will be recalculated to reflect what she has already served in pre-trial detention. One day in pre-trial detention will be counted as 1 1/2 days in prison, so she still will have 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 punishment is excessive and contradicts to the existing court practice.”
“Britthey’s biggest fear is that she is not exchanged and will have to serve the whole sentence in Russia,” they said. “She had hopes for today, as each month, each day away from her family and friends matters to her.”
They said they had to discuss with Griner what legal steps they should take next.
Griner’s arrest in February came at a time of heightened tensions between Moscow and Washington, just days before Russia sent troops into Ukraine. At the time, Griner was returning to play for a Russian team during the WNBA’s offseason.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the decision “another failure of justice, compounding the injustice of her detention,” adding that “securing her release is our priority.”
President Joe Biden told reporters that his administration is in “constant contact” with Russian authorities on Griner and other Americans who are detained there. While there has not been progress on bringing her back to the U.S., Biden said, “We’re not stopping.”
Before her conviction, the U.S. State Department declared Griner to be “wrongfully detained” — a charge that Russia has sharply rejected.
U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said in a statement that Biden “is willing to go to extraordinary lengths and make tough decisions to bring Americans home.”
WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said the decision “while unfortunate, was not unexpected. … It is time to bring this case to an end and bring BG home.” The WNBA Players Association said the ruling was “further verification that BG is not just wrongfully detained -– she is very clearly a hostage.”
Because of the growing pressure on the Biden administration to do more to bring Griner home, Blinken took the unusual step of revealing in July that Washington had made a “substantial proposal” to get Griner home, along with Paul Whelan, an American serving a 16-year sentence in Russia for espionage.
Blinken didn’t elaborate, but The Associated Press and other news organizations have reported that Washington has offered to exchange Griner and Whelan for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who is serving a 25-year sentence in the U.S. and once earned the nickname the “merchant of death.”
The White House said it has not yet received a productive response from Russia to the offer.
Russian diplomats have refused to comment on the U.S. proposal and urged Washington to discuss the matter in confidential talks, avoiding public statements. But some Russian officials have said a deal is more likely once appeals have been exhausted.
In September, Biden met with Cherelle Griner, the player’s wife, as well as her agent, Lindsay Colas. Biden also sat down separately with Elizabeth Whelan, Paul Whelan’s sister.
The White House said after the meetings that the president stressed to the families his “continued commitment to working through all available avenues to bring Brittney and Paul home safely.”
The U.S. and Russia carried out a prisoner swap in April. Moscow released U.S. Marines veteran Trevor Reed in exchange for the U.S. releasing a Russian pilot, Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was convicted in a drug trafficking conspiracy.
Moscow also has pushed for the release of other Russians in U.S. custody.
One of them is Alexander Vinnik, who was accused of laundering billions of dollars through an illicit cryptocurrency exchange. Vinnik was arrested in Greece in 2017 and extradited to the U.S. in August.
Vinnik’s French lawyer, Frederic Belot, told Russian newspaper Izvestia last month that his client hoped to be part of a possible swap.
The newspaper speculated that another possible candidate was Roman Seleznev, the son of a Russian lawmaker. He was sentenced in 2017 to 27 years in prison on charges from a hacking and credit card fraud scheme.
–AP Basketball Writer Doug Feinberg in New York contributed.
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