Brittney Griner

Russian court upholds WNBA star Brittney Griner’s 9-year prison sentence

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A Russian court on Tuesday upheld American basketball star Brittney Griner’s nine-year prison sentence for drug possession, rejecting her appeal in a session where she appeared via video call from a penal colony outside Moscow. Griner can still appeal to a higher court, but her lawyers have yet to confirm whether they will take the case further.

In the ruling, the court stated that the time Griner will have to serve in prison will be recalculated with her time in pre-trial detention taken into account. One day in pre-trial detention will be counted as 1.5 days in prison, so the basketball star will have to serve around eight years in prison.

The decision clears the way for the WNBA star to serve that sentence in a penal colony, unless the U.S. government negotiates a deal.

The eight-time all-star center with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist was convicted on August 4 after police said they found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. 

“This has been very traumatic experience, waiting for this day, waiting for the first court, and getting nine years for a crime that I was barely over the significant amount,” Griner told the Moscow hearing on Tuesday. “I don’t understand the first court’s decision to give one year less than the max when I’ve been here almost 8 months, and people with more severe crimes have gotten less than what I was given… I really hope that the court will adjust this sentence, because it’s been very, very stressful and very traumatic to my mental and psyche, being away from my family and not being able to communicate.”

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“While their legal system is very different from ours, there is no doubt that the original sentence she received was extreme, even for the Russian legal system,” the WNBA said in a statement after Tuesday’s decision. “This appeal is further verification that BG is not just wrongfully detained – she is very clearly a hostage. Let us not be divided in this moment. Rallying around BG and all wrongfully detained Americans is the common thread of humanity that unites us without regard to ideology or political party. We must unite and support the stated public commitment of the Biden Administration and Congressional leaders to do everything possible to get her home.”

Earlier this month, Brittney’s wife, Cherelle Griner, told “CBS Mornings” co-host Gayle King that she was terrified of the WNBA star’s fate.

“It’s like a movie for me. I’m like, ‘In no world did I ever thought, you know, our president and a foreign nation president would be sitting down having to discuss the freedom of my wife.’ And so to me, as much as everybody’s telling me a different definition of what B.G. is, it feels to me as if she’s a hostage,” Cherelle said.

“That must scare you,” King replied.

“It terrifies me because, I mean, when you watch movies, like, sometimes those situations don’t end well. Sometimes they never get the person back,” said Cherelle.Griner’s February arrest 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 Russia, where she played during the U.S. league’s offseason.

U.S. basketball player Brittney Griner appears in court via video link in Krasnogorsk
U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner appears on a screen via video link from a detention center before a court hearing to consider her appeal of her prison sentence on Oct. 25, 2022.EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA / REUTERS

During her trial, Griner admitted that she had the canisters in her luggage, but testified that she had inadvertently packed them in haste and that she had no criminal intent. Her defense team presented written statements that she had been prescribed cannabis to treat pain.

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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.

Before her conviction, the U.S. State Department declared Griner to be “wrongfully detained” — a charge that Russia has sharply rejected.

Reflecting the growing pressure on the Biden administration to do more to bring Griner home, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken took the unusual step of revealing publicly 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.

In September, U.S. President Joe Biden met with Brittney’s wife, Cherelle, as well as the player’s 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.”

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The Biden administration carried out a prisoner swap in April, with Moscow releasing Marine veteran Trevor Reed in exchange for the U.S. releasing a Russian pilot, Konstantin Yaroshenko, convicted in a drug trafficking conspiracy.

Moscow also has protested the arrest of another Russian currently in U.S. custody, Alexander Vinnik, who was accused of laundering billions of dollars via an illicit cryptocurrency exchange. Vinnik had been in custody in Greece after being arrested there in 2017 at U.S. request before being extradited to the U.S. in August. It wasn’t clear if Russia might demand Vinnik’s release as part of a potential swap.

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