Brittney Griner’s Prison Term Is Upheld by Russian Court

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

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

“We need to discuss this with our client,” they said in a statement on Tuesday. “We generally think that we must use all the available legal tools, especially given the harsh and unprecedented nature of her sentence.”

But higher courts in Russia are loath to overturn verdicts, especially if a case involves foreign policy and the interests of the Kremlin, experts say, and the athlete’s fate may now be in the hands of Russian and American officials feeling each other out about a possible prisoner exchange.

President Biden, asked what the United States would do now in the wake of the court ruling, said: “We are in constant contact with the Russian authorities to get Brittney and others out, and so far we have not been meeting with much positive response. But we’re not stopping.”

The negotiation comes at a time of extraordinary tensions between the two countries over the war in Ukraine, and the ruling by the three-judge appeals panel Tuesday did nothing to change that.

“We are aware of the news out of Russia that Brittney Griner will continue to be wrongfully detained under intolerable circumstances after having to undergo another sham judicial proceeding today,” Jake Sullivan, the American national security adviser, said in a statement.

Russian officials have said that prisoner exchanges cannot be considered until the legal process has concluded.

From the very start, Ms. Griner’s case has become entangled with global tensions over the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

On Tuesday, as Ms. Griner appeared remotely in a Moscow courtroom, Russian and Ukrainian forces were battling over territory and concerns were rising that Moscow might be considering detonating explosives laced with radioactive material and blaming Ukraine.

Days before Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Ms. Griner, an All-Star center with the W.N.B.A.’s Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, was detained at an airport near Moscow after customs officials found two vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage. She had been en route 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 inadvertent offense. She apologized again on Tuesday before the appeals court ruled.

“I did not intend to do this,” she said via a video link from a detention cell, “but I understand the charges against me, and I just hope that that is also taken into account.”

Addressing the court, she protested her unusually long sentence.

“I’ve been here almost eight months,” she said, “and people with more severe crimes have gotten less than what I was given.”

Since Ms. Griner was sentenced in August, her lawyers have argued that the nine-year prison term — near the 10-year maximum for such a conviction — is too harsh for a first-time offense and was politically motivated.

“We are very disappointed,” her lawyers said in their statement Tuesday. “The verdict contains numerous defects, and we hoped that the court of appeal would take them into consideration. We still think the punishment is excessive.”

Before the court ruled, the lawyers had appeared to be lowering expectations.

“Brittney does not expect any miracles to happen,” they said, “but hopes that the appeal court will hear the arguments of the defense and reduce the number of years.”

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

Mr. Sullivan said on Tuesday that American officials had “continued to engage with Russia through every available channel” to secure the freedom of Ms. Griner and other Americans wrongfully detained in Russia.

“The president has demonstrated that he is willing to go to extraordinary lengths and make tough decisions to bring Americans home,” Mr. Sullivan said.

One person briefed on the talks between Moscow and Washington this summer said that the United States had proposed exchanging Ms. Griner and Mr. Whelan for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer serving a 25-year federal prison sentence for charges including conspiring to kill Americans.

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

For American basketball players, playing in Russia during the off-season can be lucrative, but since Ms. Griner’s arrest, most W.N.B.A. players have shunned the country, and on Tuesday, the organization denounced the court decision.

“This appeal is further verification that B.G. is not just wrongfully detained — she is very clearly a hostage,” it said.

Ivan Nechepurenko reported from Tbilisi, Georgia, Neil MacFarquhar from Paris and Jonathan Abrams from Charlotte, N.C.


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