A Russian court on Tuesday October 25, dismissed US WNBA basketball star Brittney Griner’s appeal against a nine-year sentence for possessing and smuggling vape cartridges containing cannabis oil.
Recall that the 32-year-old US basketball player was arrested in Moscow back in February after vape cartridges containing cannabis oil were found in her luggage.
Griner had travelled from New York City to Russia during the WNBA off-season to play for Russian women’s basketball team UMMC Ekaterinburg.
The Phoenix Mercury eight-time all-star centre saw her detainment extended three times before her trial started in July.
Though Griner pleaded guilty to the charges of smuggling drugs into Russia, she however insisted that she had no “intent” to “break the law.” She also said she used medical cannabis to relieve the pain from a series of sports injuries. Both recreational and medicinal uses are prohibited in Russia.
A Russian court handed down a nine-year prison sentence to the WNBA star in August.
Griner and her lawyers had asked for acquittal or at least a reduction in her sentence, which they said was disproportionate to the offence and at odds with Russian judicial practice. Her lawyers noted that in similar cases, defendants have received an average sentence of about five years, with about a third of them granted parole.
During her appeal hearing via a video link, Griner insisted that it was an “honest mistake” and it had also been “very, very stressful.”
Griner issued her plea to overturn the decision to an appeals court of three judges. However after retiring for no more than 30 minutes to consider the appeal today, October 25, the presiding judge said the original verdict was upheld “without changes” except for the counting of time served in pre-trial detention as part of the sentence.
In the ruling, the court stated that the time Griner will have to serve in prison will be recalculated with her time in pre-trial detention taken into account. One day in pre-trial detention will be counted as 1.5 days in prison, so the basketball star will have to serve around eight years in prison.
The decision clears the way for the WNBA star to serve that sentence in a penal colony, unless the U.S. government negotiates a deal.
US President Joe Biden, who previously condemned Russia’s detainment of Griner, has called for the Phoenix Mercury player to be released immediately.
According to reports in July, the Biden administration were prepared to offer a prisoner swap to secure the release of Griner and former US marine Paul Whelan.
The US were reportedly ready to return Russian prisoner Viktor Bout, AKA the ‘Merchant of Death,’ as part of their deal with Russia. The White House said it never received a productive response from Russia to the offer.
Russian diplomats have refused to comment on the U.S. proposal and urged Washington to discuss the matter in confidential talks, avoiding public statements.
In September, U.S. President Joe Biden met with Brittney’s wife, Cherelle, as well as the player’s agent, Lindsay Colas. Biden also sat down separately with Elizabeth Whelan, Paul Whelan’s sister.
The White House said after the meetings that the president stressed to the families his “continued commitment to working through all available avenues to bring Brittney and Paul home safely.”
The Biden administration carried out a prisoner swap in April, with Moscow releasing Marine veteran Trevor Reed in exchange for the U.S. releasing a Russian pilot, Konstantin Yaroshenko, convicted in a drug trafficking conspiracy.
Moscow also has protested the arrest of another Russian currently in U.S. custody, Alexander Vinnik, who was accused of laundering billions of dollars via an illicit cryptocurrency exchange. Vinnik had been in custody in Greece after being arrested there in 2017 at U.S. request before being extradited to the U.S. in August. It wasn’t clear if Russia might demand Vinnik’s release as part of a potential swap.