Brittney Griner prison update: Russian court rejects WNBA star’s appeal of 9-year sentence

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MOSCOW — A Russian court on Tuesday upheld the nine-year prison sentence handed down to American basketball star Brittney Griner for drug possession, rejecting her appeal.

Griner, an eight-time star center for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and two-time Olympic gold medalist, was sentenced Aug. 4 after police said they found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport.

On Tuesday, the court of the Moscow region decided to leave the verdict in force. However, in the ruling, the court indicated that the time served by Griner in prison will be calculated taking into account the time she spent in the pretrial detention center. One day in jail will count for 1.5 days in jail, so the basketball star will have to serve about eight years in prison.

Griner took part in the session of the Moscow Regional Court via video link from the colony near Moscow, where she is incarcerated.

Griner’s February arrest came at a time of heightened tensions between Moscow and Washington, days before Russia sent troops into Ukraine. At the time, Griner was returning to Russia, where she played in the offseason for the US Championship.

Griner admitted that she had the canisters in her luggage, but testified that she had inadvertently packed them in a hurry and had no criminal intent. Her defense team submitted written statements saying she was prescribed cannabis for pain relief.

The nine-year sentence was close to the 10-year maximum, and after the conviction, Griner’s lawyers argued that the sentence was excessive. They said that in similar cases, defendants received an average of about five years in prison, with about a third of them receiving parole.

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Prior to her sentencing, the US State Department had declared Griner an “unlawful detainer” – a charge Russia has vehemently denied.

Reflecting mounting pressure on the Biden administration to do more to bring Griner home, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken took the unusual step of publicly announcing in July that Washington had made a “substantial offer” to bring Griner home, along with Paul Whelan, an American serving time in Russia 16 years of imprisonment for espionage.

Blinken did not elaborate, but the Associated Press and other news organizations reported that Washington had offered to trade Griner and Whelan for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who is serving a 25-year sentence in the United States and was once nicknamed the “dealer of death.”

The White House said that they have not yet received a productive response from Russia to this proposal.

Russian diplomats declined to comment on the US proposal and urged Washington to discuss the issue in confidential talks, avoiding public statements.

In September, US President Joe Biden met with Cherelle Griner, Brittney Griner’s wife, as well as the player’s agent, Lindsay Colas. Biden also sat 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 in every way possible to bring Brittney and Paul home safely.”

In April, the United States and Russia exchanged prisoners. Moscow released US Marine Corps veteran Trevor Reed in exchange for the US release of Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenka, who was convicted of drug-trafficking conspiracy.

Moscow has also sought the release of other Russians held in US custody.

One of them is Alexander Vinnik, who was 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, Frédéric Bello, told Russian newspaper Izvestia last month that his client hopes to take part in a possible exchange.

The newspaper suggested that another possible candidate was Roman Selyazhnev, the son of a Russian deputy. In 2017, he was sentenced to 27 years in prison on charges of burglary and credit card fraud.

The video in the media player above was used in a previous report.

Copyright © 2022, The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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