A Russian court on Tuesday began hearing US basketball star Brittney Griner’s appeal against her nine-year sentence for drug possession.
Griner, an eight-time all-star center featuring the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, was convicted on Aug. 4 after police said they found vape cans of cannabis oil in her luggage at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport.
Griner participates in the trial held in the Moscow Regional Court via video call from a penal colony outside Moscow, where she is being held.
Brittney Griner appears on a screen via video link from the detention center for a court hearing to consider an appeal against her jail sentence, in Krasnogorsk, Moscow, Russia
WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner can be seen on the lower part of a TV screen as she waits to appear in a Russian Federal Penitentiary Service video link to a courtroom
Journalists covering the appeal hearing for Brittney Griner are seen outside a Moscow courtroom
Griner, who was sentenced to nine years in a Russian penal colony for drug smuggling in August, is seen on a video link screen from a pre-trial detention center to consider an appeal against her sentence, at the Moscow Regional Court. on Tuesday. Right, Griner is pictured with her wife, Cherelle
WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner can be seen on the lower part of a TV screen as she waits to appear in a video link from Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service in a courtroom ahead of a hearing at the Moscow Regional Court in Moscow , Russia
Griner’s arrest in February came at a time of heightened tensions between Moscow and Washington, just days before Russia sent troops to Ukraine. It was then that Griner returned to Russia, where she played during the off-season in the American league.
Griner admitted that she had the jerry cans in her luggage, but testified that she accidentally packed them in haste and that she had no criminal intentions. Her defense team made written statements that she had been given cannabis to treat pain.
The nine-year sentence was close to the 10-year maximum, and Griner’s lawyers argued after the conviction that the sentence was excessive. They said defendants in similar cases received an average sentence of about five years, of which about a third were released on parole.
Before her sentencing, the US State Department stated that Griner had been “unjustly detained” – a charge that Russia has sharply rejected.
Reflecting mounting pressure on the Biden administration to do more to bring Griner home, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken took the unusual step of publicly revealing in July that Washington had made a “substantial proposal” to Griner home, along with Paul Whelan, an American serving a 16-year prison sentence in Russia for espionage.
Blinken didn’t go into details, but The Associated Press and other news organizations have reported that Washington has offered to trade Griner and Whelan for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer serving a 25-year prison sentence in the US and once nicknamed the “merchant.” of death.’
The White House said it has not yet received a productive response from Russia to the offer.
Russian diplomats have declined to comment on the US proposal and have urged Washington to discuss the matter in confidential talks and to avoid public statements.
In September, US President Joe Biden met with Cherelle Griner, wife of Brittney Griner, and the player’s agent, Lindsay Colas. Biden also sat separately with Elizabeth Whelan, Paul Whelan’s sister.
The White House said after the meetings that the president emphasized to the families that he “remains committed to bringing Brittney and Paul home safely by all available means.”
The Biden administration conducted a prisoner swap in April, freeing Moscow Navy veteran Trevor Reed in exchange for the US release of a Russian pilot, Konstantin Yaroshenko, who had been convicted of a drug-trafficking conspiracy.
Moscow has also protested the arrest of another Russian currently in US custody, Alexander Vinnik, who was accused of laundering billions of dollars through an illegal cryptocurrency exchange. Vinnik was in custody in Greece after being arrested there at the request of the US in 2017, before being extradited to the US in August. It was not clear whether Russia would demand Vinnik’s release as part of a possible swap.
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