Brittney Griner’s lawyers will appeal her verdict 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 by the Moscow Regional Court, with a outcome expected Tuesday after her lawyers allege the verdict was unfair and unwarranted under Russian law, they told CNN.
Griner, 32, attended the hearing via videoconference from her detention center, speaking 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 started two hours later than planned at the request of her lawyers, who gave no reason for the short delay.
According to lawyers Alexander Boykov of the Moscow Legal Center and Maria Blagovolina, a partner at Rybalkin, Gortsunyan, Dyakin and Partners law firm.
If the decision of the Khimki court is confirmed, the “legal procedure is basically over,” Boykov said. Meanwhile, Griner, a two-time U.S. Olympic gold medalist, is concerned she will have to serve the remainder of her sentence in Russia if her appeal is unsuccessful and if the United States and Russia cannot negotiate a prisoner swap deal, he said.
Both lawyers have indicated that they found Griner’s nine-year sentence extreme, with Blagovolina calling it “extremely harsh for this type of crime and this amount of this substance”.
The US State Department has maintained that Griner is being wrongly detained, and her case has raised concerns that she is being used as a political pawn against the backdrop of Russia’s war against Ukraine. The Biden administration recently communicated with Russia to try to secure the release of Griner and imprisoned American Paul Whelan, a senior government official told CNN last week.
Griner was initially taken into custody at a Moscow airport on February 17 — days before the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine — when authorities accused her of trying to smuggle less than a gram of cannabis oil in her luggage. Griner plays in Russia during the WNBA outdoor season.
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The All-Star Center for the Phoenix Mercury pleaded guilty to drug possession and told the court at her trial that vaping cartridges containing the cannabis oil were in her luggage because she hurriedly packed her bags.
“Brittney is a very strong person and has the character of a champion,” Blagovolina and Boykov told CNN in a written statement ahead of Griner’s appeal. “However, of course, she has her highs and lows as she is heavily stressed from being separated from her loved ones for over eight months.”
“She is very nervous pending the appeal hearing,” she added. “Brittney doesn’t expect miracles, but hopes the appeals court will hear the defense’s arguments and shorten the time frame.”
As Griner’s case unfolds, US officials have separately proposed a possible prisoner swap with Russia, offering to exchange convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for Griner and Whelan, a US citizen detained by Russia since 2018 for alleged espionage. consistently denied the charges, was convicted in June 2020 and sentenced to 16 years in prison.
Despite the “relatively sustained” pace of talks between the US and Russia to secure the release of the Americans, the official said the Biden administration has not yet received a serious counter-offer from the Russian side.
“They don’t respond. I would say they continue to respond with something they know is not feasible or available,” the official said of the Russian response.
Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson — whose eponymous center works on behalf of families of hostages and inmates, and who recently traveled to Russia to discuss the possible release of Griner and Whelan — recently said he was “cautiously optimistic” that the two Americans would be released. become.
Richardson, who was also the US 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 towards their release. The former governor was instrumental in the release of Trevor Reed, an American veteran who was held in Russia for three years before being released in April.
Meanwhile, Griner’s wife Cherelle and their supporters have continued to shed light on her case and continue to support and pressure to ensure she is brought home, by launching a #WeAreBG social media campaign. After months of urging, Cherelle Griner met with Biden last month and told CNN that the meeting illustrated the government’s commitment to bringing her wife home.
“It wasn’t a meeting where the president told me the news I want to hear,” Cherelle Griner said. “It wasn’t, but it was one of those still crucial encounters where… it gave me confidence in what he’s doing now.”
As for Griner, she turned 32 last week and celebrated her birthday in a cell on the outskirts of Moscow, her lawyers told CNN. They spent a few hours with her trying to cheer her up as much as possible, relaying birthday messages from all over the world.
“Thank you all for fighting so hard to get me home,” she said in a message shared by her lawyers. “All the support and love certainly help me.”