International

Brittney Griner’s prison sentence is upheld in a Russian court

The decision effectively sends Griner to serve out her term in a Russian prison colony, even as the U.S. and Russia appear set to reengage in talks for a possible prisoner swap.

Women's National Basketball Association player Brittney Griner leaves the courtroom after the verdict in Khimki, outside Moscow, on Aug. 4. A Russian court found Griner guilty of smuggling and storing narcotics.
Women’s National Basketball Association player Brittney Griner leaves the courtroom after the verdict in Khimki, outside Moscow, on Aug. 4. A Russian court found Griner guilty of smuggling and storing narcotics. Kirill Kudryavtsev | AFP via Getty Images
Updated October 25, 2022 at 8:45 AM ET

MOSCOW — A Moscow appeals court reaffirmed American basketball star Britney Griner’s nine-year sentence on drug smuggling charges — a decision that in effect sends Griner to serve out her term in a Russian prison colony, even as Moscow and Washington appear set to reengage in talks for a possible prisoner swap that could see her released much sooner.

Griner observed Tuesday’s hearing by video feed from a prison cell in a women’s detention center outside Moscow, relying on a court appointed interpreter to follow the proceedings.

“Can she see the interpreter?” asked one of the three judges on the panel at Griner’s hearing.

“Are you wearing a white shirt and a black jacket?” responded Griner, squinting back through cell bars at the screen in front of her.

Brittney Griner is seen on a screen via a video link from a remand prison during Tuesday's Moscow court hearing where her appeal was denied.
Brittney Griner is seen on a screen via a video link from a remand prison during Tuesday’s Moscow court hearing where her appeal was denied. Kirill Kudryavtsev | AFP via Getty Images

In a tweet, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the decision “another failure of justice, compounding the injustice of her detention,” and said that securing Griner’s release “is our priority.”

Jake Sullivan, the White House national security advisor, called the hearing “another sham judicial proceeding,” saying in a statement, “President Biden has been very clear that Brittney should be released immediately.”

Sullivan emphasized that the U.S. has “continued to engage with Russia through every available channel and make every effort to bring home Brittney” and other Americans.

Brittney Griner vies for the ball in the women's final basketball match between the U.S. and Japan during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in August 2021.
Brittney Griner vies for the ball in the women’s final basketball match between the U.S. and Japan during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in August 2021. Aris Messinis | AFP via Getty Images

According to a statement released by Griner’s legal team ahead of Tuesday’s ruling, Griner had entered the day with few illusions.

“Brittney does not expect any miracles to happen but hopes that the appeal court will hear the arguments of the defense and reduce the term,” read the statement.

In August, a Russian court sentenced Griner to nine years in prison for carrying less than a gram (0.04 oz.) of hashish oil into Russia when she arrived for play in the Russian women’s professional basketball league earlier this year.

In court, Griner admitted to mistakenly packing two vape cartridges in her rush to pack her luggage — but provided documents that showed the oil was legally prescribed by her U.S. doctor for pain management. She also never failed a drug test.

The U.S. government has labeled Griner “wrongfully detained” and referred her case to the State Department’s office for hostage affairs amid charges the case was politically motivated.

Griner’s Russian lawyers have also noted the American’s nine-year sentence on drug charges was unusually harsh, even by Russian legal standards.

In this photo provided by the U.S. Department of Justice, Russian arms trafficking suspect Viktor Bout deplanes after arriving at Westchester County Airport in New York on Nov. 16, 2010. Bout was extradited from Thailand to the U.S. to face terrorism charges.
In this photo provided by the U.S. Department of Justice, Russian arms trafficking suspect Viktor Bout deplanes after arriving at Westchester County Airport in New York on Nov. 16, 2010. Bout was extradited from Thailand to the U.S. to face terrorism charges. U.S. Department of Justice via Getty Images)

U.S.-Russia prisoner trade negotiations continue

The appeals ruling came as Washington and Moscow have engaged in on-again, off-again talks over a potential prisoner exchange involving Griner.

The White House says it made a “substantial offer” over the summer — widely reported to involve a suggested trade of convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout — in exchange for Griner and another jailed American, former Marine Paul Whelan.

White House officials also maintain that Griner’s freedom is an administration priority and repeatedly encouraged Moscow to take the deal or propose a serious counteroffer.

In a recent interview with CNN, President Biden said the only reason he would engage with Russian President Vladimir Putin at next month’s G-20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, would be to discuss Griner’s release.

Yet the Kremlin has insisted any deal will hinge on Griner’s trial on drug charges coming to a formal end — a detail that appears to place added significance to the appeals process, whatever the outcome.

There are potential signs of progress on negotiations

Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson — who has engaged in informal talks with Moscow on behalf of the Griner and Whelan families — said in August he came away “relatively optimistic” from conversations with Russian officials.

Then, earlier this month, Moscow’s Ambassador to the U.S. Antoly Antonov revealed he had visited Bout, the Russian arms dealer, at his prison in Illinois, where he is serving a 25-year sentence.

“He’s counting on and hoping for a decision from Moscow on this matter,” Antonov told Russia’s state RIA-Novosti news service, referring to Bout.

“With a nice, pleasant smile we parted on that note,” added Antonov.

Brittney Griner shakes hands with her lawyer, Alexander Boykov, next to the U.S. Embassy's Deputy Chief of Mission Elizabeth Rood, before a court hearing in Khimki on Aug. 4.
Brittney Griner shakes hands with her lawyer, Alexander Boykov, next to the U.S. Embassy’s Deputy Chief of Mission Elizabeth Rood, before a court hearing in Khimki on Aug. 4. Evgenia Novozhenina | Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Dimming that optimism: last week’s arrests in Germany and Italy of two Russians — including the son of a regional governor — on a U.S. request in Europe. The two were arrested for alleged sanctions evasion and illegal sale of U.S. technologies to Russian arms firms active in Ukraine.

The Kremlin has condemned the detentions and vowed to do “everything possible” to defend the Russian nationals from extradition to the U.S. Russian media have openly speculated the arrests were part of a U.S. attempt to exert leverage for a trade for Griner’s release.

Meanwhile, Griner remains in prison outside Moscow, where she recently marked her 32nd birthday far from friends and family.

In their statement released ahead of Tuesday’s ruling, her legal team described Griner as nervous about the road ahead, and acknowledged that public pressure on Washington, rather than the legal system, were more likely to play a role in her possible release from prison.

“Brittney is [a] very strong person and has a champion’s character,” her lawyers said in the statement. “However, she of course has her highs and lows as she is severely stressed being separated from her loved ones for over eight months.”

The statement also included a message from Griner herself, who was quoted as saying: “Thank you everyone for fighting so hard to get me home. All the support and love are definitely helping me.”

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
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