A Russian court on Tuesday denied Brittney Griner’s appeal, upholding the American basketball star’s nine-year prison sentence on drug charges. Griner received the sentence in August, and has been in Russian custody since she was arrested at a Moscow airport in February.
“We are very disappointed,” Griner’s lawyers said in a statement, as quoted by The New York Times, after the court upheld the conviction on Tuesday. “The verdict contains numerous defects, and we hoped that the court of appeal would take them into consideration.”
Griner is now set to begin serving her sentence, although it will be slightly reduced. According to the Associated Press, the Moscow region court said in its ruling on Tuesday that “the time Griner will have to serve in prison will be recalculated with her time in pre-trial detention taken into account.” The AP reported that 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.”
Griner, a star for the Phoenix Mercury of the WNBA, was arrested in February while traveling to Russia to suit up for UMMC Ekaterinburg, a Russian team for which she had played during the WNBA’s offseason since 2014.
Officials at the airport found cannabis oil in Griner’s luggage.
Her detention has veered into the realm of diplomacy, emerging as another standoff in the strained relations between the United States and Russia.
The two countries have discussed a potential prisoner swap that would secure the release of both Griner and Paul Whelan, a U.S. citizen who has been detained in a Russian prison on espionage charges since 2018.
The U.S. has offered to release Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who is currently serving a 25-year prison sentence in the United States, in exchange for Griner and Whalen, but a deal has yet to come to fruition.
Earlier this month, Bill Richardson, who previously served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and governor of New Mexico, said he was “cautiously optimistic” that both Griner and Whalen will be released by the end of the year.
Richardson, an experienced negotiator for families of detainees and hostages, traveled to Moscow last month to meet with Russian officials.
“I got the sense that the Russian officials that I met with, that I’ve known over the years, are ready to talk,” Richardson said in an interview on CNN. “I got a good sense from the Russians – the vibrations – but I’m not a government official.”
“I’m not part of the government, the government channel. I’ve always made that clear. I respect that. I think any decision, for instance, a release, a prisoner exchange, has to be made by the President. And I think the administration has done a good job on that,” he added.
President Joe Biden met with the families of Griner and Whalen last month.
In August, following Griner’s conviction, Biden said that his administration “will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible.”
“Today, American citizen Brittney Griner received a prison sentence that is one more reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney,” Biden said in a statement.
The New York Times reported on Tuesday that Griner’s “lawyers said they had not decided whether to take the case any further.”
“We need to discuss this with our client,” the lawyers said in a statement, as quoted by the Times. “We generally think that we must use all the available legal tools, especially given the harsh and unprecedented nature of her verdict.”
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