Brittney Griner’s prison sentence upheld by Russian court

A Russian appeals court on Tuesday upheld a nine-year prison sentence for Brittney Griner, the American basketball star who was arrested after she arrived in the country with a small amount of hash oil.

Ms Griner has been jailed since her incarceration in February and the new sentence could now pave the way for her transfer to a prison colony, although it was not clear when that would happen. Her lawyers said they could ask a higher court to intervene.

“We need to discuss this with our customer,” it said in a statement on Tuesday. “We generally believe that we must use all legal means available, particularly given the harsh and unprecedented nature of her sentence.”

But higher courts in Russia are reluctant to overturn judgments, especially when a case affects foreign policy and the Kremlin’s interests, experts say, and the athlete’s fate may now lie in the hands of Russian and American officials, probing each other over a possibility prisoner exchange.

When asked what the United States would do now following the court ruling, President Biden said: “We are in constant contact with the Russian authorities to get Brittney and others out and so far we haven’t had much positive feedback. But we don’t stop.”

The negotiations come at a time of extraordinary tension between the two countries over the war in Ukraine, and Tuesday’s ruling by the three-person Appellate Body has not changed that.

“We are aware of the news from Russia that Brittney Griner continues to be unjustly detained in intolerable circumstances after undergoing another mock trial today,” Jake Sullivan, the US National Security Advisor, said in a statement.

Russian officials have said the prisoner exchange cannot be considered until the court case is completed.

Ms. Griner’s case was intertwined from the start with global tensions over the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

On Tuesday, when Ms Griner appeared remotely in a Moscow courtroom, Russian and Ukrainian forces were fighting for territory and concerns mounted that Moscow might consider detonating radioactive explosives and blaming Ukraine .

Days before Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Ms. Griner, an All-Star central with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, was arrested at an airport near Moscow after customs officials smuggled two vape cartridges with hash oil inside found her luggage. She was on her way to Yekaterinburg, a city near the Ural Mountains, where she played for a women’s basketball team.

Ms Griner, who recently turned 32 in Russian custody, pleaded guilty to drug smuggling charges and apologized for what she called an unintentional offence. She apologized again Tuesday before the appeals court ruled.

“I had no intention of doing this,” she said via video link from a detention cell, “but I understand the charges against me and I just hope that’s taken into account.”

In court, she protested against her unusually long prison sentence.

“I’ve been here for almost eight months,” she said, “and people with more serious crimes gotten less than I got.”

Since Ms Griner’s conviction in August, her lawyers have argued that the nine-year sentence – close to the 10-year maximum for such a conviction – was too harsh for a first-time offense and politically motivated.

“We are very disappointed,” her lawyers said in their statement on Tuesday. “There are numerous flaws in the judgment and we had hoped that the Court of Appeal would take them into account. We still think the penalty is excessive.”

Before the court ruled, the lawyers seemed to lower expectations.

“Brittney doesn’t expect miracles,” they said, “but hopes the appeals court will hear the defense’s arguments and reduce the number of years.”

American officials claim that Russia, struggling under the weight of international sanctions imposed over the war, is hoping to use the athlete and another jailed American, Paul Whelan, a former Marine jailed since December 2018, as bargaining chips .

Mr. Sullivan said Tuesday that American officials “continued to engage with Russia through all available channels” to secure the freedom of Ms. Griner and other Americans unjustly detained in Russia.

“The President has shown that he is willing to go to extraordinary lengths and make difficult decisions to bring Americans home,” Sullivan said.

A person briefed on the talks between Moscow and Washington this summer said the United States had proposed exchanging Ms Griner and Mr Whelan for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who is serving a 25-year federal sentence on charges including conspiracy for killing Americans.

Mr. Biden and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia are expected to attend a Group of 20 leaders summit in Indonesia next month, but Mr. Biden said he would only speak to the Russian leader there if he were to discuss Ms. Griner’s case.

It can be lucrative for American basketball players to play in Russia during the offseason, but since Ms Griner’s arrest, most WNBA players have avoided the country, and on Tuesday the organization condemned the court decision.

“This appeal is further confirmation that BG is not only wrongly imprisoned – she is clearly a hostage,” it said.

Ivan Nekhepurenko reported from Tbilisi, Georgia, Neil MacFarquhar from Paris and Jonathan Abrams from Charlotte, NC