Russian court denies Brittney Griner’s appeal of 9-year prison sentence

A Russian court on Tuesday denied WNBA star Brittney Griner’s appeal and upheld her nine-year prison sentence on drug charges.

Griner, 32, looked despondent as she appeared at the hearing in the Moscow Regional Court via video conference from the detention center where she has been held since her arrest in February. The athlete is now expected to be moved to a penal colony.

Griner’s conviction in August was decried by the United States, which has said the athlete is being wrongfully detained. The denial of her appeal will see hopes for Griner’s release shift to the potential for a high-profile prisoner swap.

In a statement read out in court, Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist who plays for the Phoenix Mercury, said that she “did not intend to do this,” but understood the charges brought against her. She said she hoped it would be taken into account that she “did plead guilty” in the case.

The athlete said she hoped the court would adjust her sentence as she described her time behind bars as “stressful” and “traumatic.”

The WNBA star had been “quite pessimistic about the outcome” of the appeal ahead of Tuesday’s hearing, one of her attorneys, Maria Blagovolina, said Monday.

Griner had held hope there would be a reduction to her sentence, but did not believe the verdict would be overruled, Blagovolina said on MSNBC’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports.”

Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist who plays for the Phoenix Mercury, was sentenced in August to nine years in prison on drug charges.

She was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February, after Russian authorities said they found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage.

Griner pleaded guilty in July but said that it was an accident, that she had brought them to Russia unintentionally and that she had packed hurriedly for a flight. Medical cannabis, which is illegal in Russia, is legal in most of the U.S.

U.S. officials say Griner is being wrongfully detained. State Department spokesman Ned Price called the judicial proceedings “largely shambolic” Monday.

“Wrongful detainees are by definition wrongfully held. They are used as political pawns, as leverage,” Price said. “It is our goal to see them home as soon as we can.”

Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, has said Brittney Griner is being held hostage.

The U.S. has proposed a prisoner exchange with Russia for the release of Griner and another American, Paul Whelan, a corporate executive who has been detained there since 2018, two sources familiar with the matter said. The deal would include the U.S.’s releasing imprisoned Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, the sources have said.

When she was detained, Griner had been in Russia to play for a Russian Premier League women’s team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, as she had done since 2014.

Lawyers for Griner filed an appeal in August, after she was sentenced.

In April, Russia released American Trevor Reed in exchange for the U.S.’s releasing Russian drug trafficker Konstantin Yaroshenko, who had been sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Reed, a former Marine, was sentenced to nine years in prison in Russia in 2020 after authorities there said he assaulted a Russian police officer after a night of drinking. Reed and his family have maintained his innocence.

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