[Breaking news update at 8:40 a.m. ET]
A judge in Russia has upheld American basketball star Brittney Griner’s verdict, only slightly reducing her nine-year sentence.
[Previous story, published at 8:29 a.m. ET]
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 pending in the Moscow Regional Court, with a outcome expected Tuesday after her lawyers argued that the verdict was unfair and unjustified under Russian law. They urged the court to acquit her, calling her sentence disproportionate and misrepresenting the court’s previous ruling by saying Griner had criminal intent.
“No lawyer can honestly say that this verdict is in line with Russian legal practice,” said lawyer Alexander Boykov.
Griner, 32, attended the hearing via video conference from her detention center — Correctional 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 started two hours later than planned at the request of her lawyers, who gave no reason for the short delay.
According to lawyers Boykov of the Moscow Legal Center and Maria Blagovolina, a partner at Rybalkin, the court hearing the appeal may choose to enforce Griner’s verdict, quash it and return it to the lower court, or the to reduce Griner’s prison sentence. , 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.
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.
In court on Tuesday, Blagovolina questioned the Russian investigation into Griner’s alleged drug use, calling the results of that investigation “questionable and unconfirmed”. “Continuous use of narcotics is incompatible with a career as a professional athlete,” she added.
Both lawyers previously said they found Griner’s nine-year sentence extreme, and Blagovolina called it “extremely harsh for this type of crime and this amount of this substance.”
Before the hearing, Blagovolina and Boykov called Griner a “strong person” with a “champion character” who was nevertheless “severely stressed because she had been separated from her loved ones for more than eight months.”
“She is very nervous pending the appeal hearing,” she added in a written statement to CNN. “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,” Griner said in a message shared by her lawyers. “All the support and love certainly help me.”