A Russian court has upheld American basketball star Brittney Griner’s nine-year prison sentence for drug possession, rejecting her appeal.
Griner, an eight-time all-star center for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, was convicted on Aug. 4 after police at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport said they discovered vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage.
The sentence was upheld by the Moscow region court on Tuesday. However, the court stated in its decision that the time Griner will have to serve in prison will be recalculated to include her time in pre-trial detention. Because one day in pre-trial detention is equivalent to 1.5 days in prison, the basketball player will have to serve approximately eight years in prison.
Griner participated in the hearing at the Moscow Regional Court via video call from a penal colony outside of Moscow where she is imprisoned.
Griner’s arrest in February occurred during a period of increased tensions between Moscow and Washington, just days before Russia sent troops into Ukraine. Griner was returning to Russia at the time, where she had played during the offseason of the US league.
Griner admitted having the canisters in her luggage but claimed they were inadvertently packed in haste and she had no criminal intent. Her defense team presented written statements claiming she was prescribed cannabis for pain relief.
The nine-year sentence was close to the maximum of ten years, and Griner’s lawyers argued that the punishment was excessive after his conviction. In similar cases, they said, defendants received an average sentence of about five years, with about a third granted parole.
Prior to her conviction, the US State Department declared Griner to have been “wrongfully detained,” a charge that Russia has categorically denied.
In July, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken took the unusual step of publicly revealing that Washington had made a “substantial proposal” to bring Griner home, along with Paul Whelan, an American serving a 16-year sentence in Russia for espionage.
Blinken did not elaborate, 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 sentence in the United States who was once known as the “merchant of death.”
The White House stated that it has yet to receive a constructive response to the offer from Russia.
Russian diplomats have refused to comment on the US proposal and have urged Washington to discuss the matter in private rather than publicly.
President Joe Biden met with Brittney Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, and the player’s agent, Lindsay Colas, in September. Biden also met with Elizabeth Whelan, Paul Whelan’s sister, separately.
Following the meetings, the White House stated that the president reiterated to the families his “continued commitment to working through all available 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 drug 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, told the Russian newspaper Izvestia that his client hoped to be involved in a possible swap.
Another possible candidate, according to the newspaper, is Roman Seleznev, the son of a Russian lawmaker. In 2017, he was sentenced to 27 years in prison on charges related to a hacking and credit card fraud scheme.
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