Brittney Griner’s prison sentence is confirmed by a Russian court


Updated October 25, 2022 8:45 a.m. ET

MOSCOW — A Moscow appeals court has upheld American basketball star Britney Griner’s nine-year prison sentence for drug trafficking — a decision that effectively sends Griner to serve out her sentence in a Russian penal colony, while even that Moscow and Washington seem ready to resume talks for a possible prisoner exchange which could see her released much sooner.

Griner observed Tuesday’s hearing via video from a jail cell in a women’s detention center outside Moscow, relying on a court-appointed interpreter to follow the proceedings.

“Can she see the interpreter?” asked one of the three judges on the panel during Griner’s hearing.

“Are you wearing a white shirt and a black jacket?” Griner replied, squinting through the bars of the cell at the screen in front of her.

In a tweet, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the decision “another failure of justice, compounding the injustice of his detention”, and said Griner’s release “is our priority”.

Jake Sullivan, the White House national security adviser, called the hearing “a new sham legal proceeding”, saying in a statement: “President Biden has been very clear that Brittney should be released immediately.” .

Sullivan stressed that the United States has “continued to engage with Russia through every channel available and to do everything possible to bring Brittney home” and other Americans.

According to a statement released by Griner’s legal team ahead of Tuesday’s ruling, Griner entered the day with few illusions.

“Brittney does not expect miracles to happen but hopes the appeals court will hear the defense’s arguments and reduce the term,” the statement read.

In August, a Russian court sentenced Griner to nine years in prison for transporting less than one gram (0.04 oz) of hash oil to Russia when she arrived to play in the Russian women’s professional basketball league earlier this year.

In court, Griner admitted to mistakenly packing two vape cartridges in his rush to pack – but provided documentation showing the oil was legally prescribed by his US doctor for pain management. She has also never failed a drug test.

The U.S. government called Griner a ‘wrongfully detained’ and referred her case to the State Department office. for hostage cases amid the accusations, the case was politically motivated.

Griner’s Russian lawyers also noted that the American’s nine-year prison sentence for drug trafficking was unusually harsh, even by Russian legal standards.

Trade negotiations between the United States and Russia continue

The appeal decision came as Washington and Moscow engaged in recurring talks over a possible prisoner swap involving Griner.

The White House says it made a “substantial offer” over the summer – widely reported as involving a suggested trade of convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout – in exchange for Griner and another imprisoned American, former Marine Paul Whelan.

White House officials also maintain that Griner’s freedom is an administration priority and have repeatedly encouraged Moscow to accept the deal or make a serious counter-offer.

In a recent interview with CNN, President Biden said the only reason he would engage with Russian President Vladimir Putin at next month’s G-20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, is to discuss the release of Griner.

Still, the Kremlin has insisted that any deal will depend on whether Griner’s drug-trafficking trial ends officially – a detail that appears to give added weight to the appeals process, regardless of the outcome.

There are potential signs of progress in the negotiations

Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson – who has engaged in informal talks with Moscow on behalf of the Griner and Whelan families – said in august he emerged “relatively optimistic” from conversations with Russian officials.

Then, earlier this month, the Moscow ambassador to the United States Antoly Antonov revealed he had visited Bout, the Russian arms dealer, in his prison in Illinois, where he is serving a 25-year sentence.

“He counts and hopes for a decision from Moscow on this,” Antonov told Russian news service RIA-Novosti, referring to Bout.

“With a nice, pleasant smile, we parted on this note,” Antonov added.

Damping that optimism: the arrests last week in Germany and Italy of two Russians – including the son of a regional governor – at the behest of the United States in Europe. Both men were arrested for alleged evasion of sanctions and the illegal sale of American technology to Russian arms companies active in Ukraine.

The Kremlin condemned detentions and pledged to do “everything possible” to defend Russian nationals from extradition to Russian American media have openly speculated the arrests were part of a US attempt to leverage a trade for Griner’s release.

Meanwhile, Griner remains in prison outside Moscow, where she recently celebrated her 32nd birthday away from friends and family.

In their statement released ahead of Tuesday’s ruling, his legal team described Griner as nervous about which road to take and acknowledged that public pressure on Washington, rather than the justice system, was more likely to play a role in his possible release from prison.

“Brittney is [a] “However, of course she has her ups and downs as she is very stressed from being away from her loved ones for over eight months.”

The statement also included a message from Griner herself, who reportedly said, “Thank you all for fighting so hard to get me home. All the support and love is definitely helping me.”

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