Russian court upholds Brittney Griner’s drug smuggling conviction




CNN

A judge in Russia upheld Brittney Griner’s conviction on Tuesday, upholding the US basketball star’s conviction on drug smuggling charges and only slightly reducing her nine-year sentence.

Griner’s sentence will be changed to include the time she spent in pre-trial detention at a Moscow airport after her Feb. 17 arrest, the judge ruled, with each day in pre-trial detention counting as 1.5 days towards her prison sentence. It wasn’t immediately clear how much that would reduce the penalty.

The decision came after an appeal hearing on Tuesday, at which Griner, who the US believes was wrongly arrested, apologized again as she and her lawyers asked the court for a lighter sentence, arguing the sentence was unfair under Russian law and unjustified. The lawyers urged the court to acquit her, calling her sentence disproportionate and the previous court decision wrong when it said Griner had criminal intent.

“I’ve been here for almost eight months, and people with more serious crimes have been given less than I have,” Griner said Tuesday, who appeared for the hearing via video link from her detention facility, Correctional Colony No. 1 in Novoye Grishino, north of Moscow .

“I really hope the court aligns this ruling,” she said before the ruling, “because it’s been very, very stressful and very traumatic on my mind and my psyche and being away from my family, not being able to communicate.”

Griner’s attorneys expressed disappointment after the hearing, saying in a statement the verdict “contained numerous flaws” and they felt “the penalty was excessive.”

US officials have attempted to secure the release of Griner and Paul Whelan, another American detained in Russia, by proposing a prisoner swap with Russia. Those efforts have continued in recent weeks, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said in a statement Tuesday calling the latest hearing a “sham,” adding, “President Biden has made it very clear that Brittney should be released immediately.” ”

At a Covid-19 vaccination event, the President said: “We haven’t had a lot of positive response, but we’re not stopping.”

The Biden administration has been in talks with Russia over the past few days, State Department spokesman Ned Price said on CNN. “This has not been a static process, we continue to urge them to genuinely care and get involved,” he said.

Brittney Griner, who was sentenced to nine years in prison in a Russian penal colony in August for drug smuggling, can be seen via video link Tuesday ahead of a court hearing to consider an appeal against her sentence in a Moscow court.

But since her appeal was unsuccessful, Griner, a two-time US Olympic gold medalist, is concerned she will have to serve out the rest of her sentence in Russia, her lawyers said, if the United States and Russia cannot agree on a prisoner swap.

“She had hopes for today,” the attorneys said, “as every month, every day away from her family and friends is important to her.”

The US State Department has claimed Griner was wrongly imprisoned, and her case has raised concerns that she is being used as a political pawn amid Russia’s war against Ukraine. That hasn’t changed, said the longest-serving American diplomat in Moscow on Tuesday before the Moscow district court.

“Nothing in the previous sentence, nothing in the outcome of today’s appeal changes the fact that the United States government holds Griner to be wrongly imprisoned,” said Elizabeth Rood, US Embassy Chargé d’Affaires.

Griner was initially taken into custody days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine began – when authorities accused her of attempting to smuggle less than a gram of cannabis oil in her luggage. Griner plays in the offseason of the WNBA in Russia.

Follow live updates: Russia’s war in Ukraine

The Phoenix Mercury All-Star Center pleaded guilty to drug charges, telling the court at her trial that vape cartridges of cannabis oil were in her luggage because she packed her bags in a hurry.

In court on Tuesday, defense attorney Maria Blagovolina questioned the Russian probe into Griner’s alleged drug use, calling the results of that probe “dubious and unconfirmed.” “Continuous use of narcotics is incompatible with a career as a professional athlete,” added Blagovolina, a partner at the law firm Rybalkin, Gortsunyan, Dyakin and Partners.

“No lawyer will be able to say in all honesty that this verdict corresponds to Russian legal practice,” said Griner’s other attorney, Alexander Boykov of the Moscow Legal Center.

Both attorneys previously said they thought Griner’s nine-year sentence was extreme, with Blagovolina calling it “very severe 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 nonetheless “severely stressed at being separated from loved ones for over eight months.”

The appeals court could have upheld Griner’s sentence, overturned it and sent it back to the lower court, or reduced her sentence, her attorneys said.

“She is very nervous and awaiting the appeal hearing,” they added in a written statement to CNN. “Brittney doesn’t expect miracles, but she hopes the appeals court will hear the defense’s arguments and get her sentence reduced.”

As Griner’s case unfolds, US officials have separately proposed a possible prisoner swap with Russia, offering to swap convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for Griner and Whelan, an American citizen held by Russia since 2018 on alleged espionage charges. Whelan, who has consistently denied the allegations, was found guilty and sentenced to 16 years in prison in June 2020.

Despite the “fairly sustained” pace of talks between the US and Russia to secure the Americans’ release, a senior administration official told CNN last week the Biden administration has yet to receive a serious counter-offer from the Russian side.

“They are not unresponsive. 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 Gov. Bill Richardson — whose eponymous center works on behalf of families of hostages and inmates and who recently traveled to Russia to discuss Griner and Whelan’s possible release — recently said he was “cautiously optimistic” that the two Americans could do this will be released.

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

Meanwhile, Griner’s wife Cherelle and her supporters have continued to highlight her case, maintaining support and pressure to ensure she is brought home and launching a #WeAreBG campaign on social media.

The WNBA on Tuesday reiterated his desire to bring Griner home, saying in a statement the outcome of her appeal was “further confirmation that BG is not only wrongly imprisoned — she is very clearly a hostage.”

“We must unite and support the stated public commitment of the Biden administration and congressional leaders to do whatever is necessary to bring them home,” the statement said, adding, “No athlete should be used as a political pawn.” .”

Griner’s agent Lindsay Colas called a Moscow court’s rejection of Griner’s appeal “disappointing but not surprising” and said the basketball star was “held by Russia just because she’s American.”

Colas thanked the Biden administration and other outside groups for lobbying for Griner’s return.

After months of urging, Cherelle Griner met with Biden last month and told CNN the meeting showed 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 pivotal meetings where … it allowed me to have confidence in what he’s doing right now.”

Griner turned 32 last week and celebrated her birthday in a cell in a Moscow suburb, her lawyers told CNN. They spent a few hours with her to “cheer her up” as much as possible and shared birthday messages from around 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.”