Russian court upholds Brittney Griner’s drug-trafficking conviction


[Breaking news update at 8:40 a.m. ET]

A judge in Russia has upheld American basketball star Brittney Griner’s sentence, only slightly reducing her sentence of nine years in prison.

[Previous story, published at 8:29 a.m. ET]

Brittney Griner’s lawyers are appealing her conviction in a Russian court on Tuesday, nearly three months after the American basketball star was convicted of smuggling drugs into the country and sentenced to nine years in prison.

Griner’s appeal is being heard in the Moscow Regional Court, with a result expected on Tuesday, after her lawyers argued that the sentence was unfair and unjustified under Russian law. They urged the court to acquit her, calling her sentence disproportionate and the earlier court erred in saying Griner had criminal intent.

“No lawyer will be able to honestly say that this verdict is consistent with Russian jurisprudence,” said defense lawyer Alexander Boykov.

Griner, 32, attended the hearing via video conference from her detention center — Criminal Colony No. 1 in Novoye Grishino, north of Moscow — and spoke briefly to confirm her name, according to her legal team. It was not clear whether she would make any further statements during the hearing, which began two hours later than scheduled at the request of her lawyers, who did not give a reason for the brief adjournment.

The court hearing the appeal could choose to let Griner’s sentence stand, set it aside and send it back to the lower court or reduce Griner’s prison sentence, according to the lawyers, Boykov of the Moscow Legal Center and Maria Blagovolina, a partner at the Rybalkin, Gortsunyan, Dyakin and Partners law firm.

If the Khimki district court’s decision is upheld, “the legal process will basically be over,” Boykov said. Meanwhile, Griner, a two-time U.S. Olympic gold medalist, is worried she will have to serve the rest of her sentence in Russia if her appeal is unsuccessful and if the U.S. and Russia can’t reach a deal on a prisoner swap , he said.

The US State Department has maintained that Griner is wrongfully detained, and her case has raised concerns that she is being used as a political pawn against the background of Russia’s war against Ukraine. The Biden administration recently communicated with Russia to try to secure the release of Griner and jailed American Paul Whelan, a senior administration official told CNN last week.

Griner was initially taken into custody at a Moscow airport on February 17 – days before the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – when authorities accused her of trying to smuggle less than a gram of cannabis oil in her luggage. Griner is playing in Russia in the WNBA’s offseason.

Follow live updates: Russia’s war in Ukraine

The All-Star center for the Phoenix Mercury pleaded guilty to drug charges and told the court during her trial that vape cartridges containing the cannabis oil were in her luggage because she had packed her bags in a hurry.

In court Tuesday, Blagovolina cast doubt on the Russian investigation into Griner’s alleged drug use, calling the findings of the investigation “dubious and unconfirmed.” “Continuous drug use is incompatible with a career as a professional athlete,” she added.

Both attorneys previously indicated they felt Griner’s nine-year sentence was extreme, with Blagovolina calling it “very severe for this type of crime and this amount of this drug.”

Ahead of the hearing, Blagovolina and Boykov called Griner a “strong person” with a “master character” who was nonetheless “severely stressed from being separated from loved ones for over eight months.”

“She is very anxious to await the appeal hearing,” they added in a written statement to CNN. “Brittney doesn’t expect miracles to happen, but hopes the appeals court will hear the defense’s arguments and reduce the term.”

As Griner’s case plays out, U.S. officials have separately proposed a potential prisoner swap with Russia, offering to swap convicted Russian arms smuggler Viktor Bout for Griner and Whelan, a U.S. citizen who has been held by Russia for alleged espionage since 2018. Whelan, who has consistently denied the charges, was convicted and in June 2020 sentenced to 16 years in prison.

Despite the “fairly persistent” pace of discussions between the United States and Russia to secure the Americans’ release, the official said the Biden administration has yet to receive a serious counteroffer from Russia.

“They are not responding. I would say they continue to respond with something that they know is not feasible or available,” the official said of the Russian response.

Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson — whose namesake center works on behalf of families of hostages and prisoners and who recently traveled to Russia to discuss the possible release of Griner and Whelan — recently said he was “cautiously optimistic.” , the two Americans could be released.

Richardson, who also served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President Bill Clinton, said he is working with both their families and coordinating with the White House to work toward their release. The former governor played a role in the release of Trevor Reed, an American veteran held in Russia for three years before his release in April.

Meanwhile, Griner’s wife Cherelle and their supporters have continued to highlight her case and maintain support and pressure to ensure she is brought home, starting a #WeAreBG campaign on social media. After months of pressure, Cherelle Griner met with Biden last month and told CNN that the meeting illustrated the administration’s commitment to bringing his wife home.

“It wasn’t a meeting where the president told me the news that I want to hear,” Cherelle Griner said. “It wasn’t, but it was one of those still crucial meetings where … it allowed me to have confidence in what he’s doing right now.”

As for Griner, she turned 32 last week and celebrated her birthday in a cell in the suburbs of Moscow, her lawyers told CNN. They spent a few hours with her trying to “cheer her up” as much as they could, relaying birthday messages from all over the world.

“Thank you all for fighting so hard to get me home,” Griner said in a message shared by her attorneys. “All the support and love is definitely helping me.”

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