Brittney Griner's prison sentence is upheld in a Russian court
MOSCOW — A Moscow appeals court upheld 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 you?" one of three judges on the panel asked the interpreter in the courtroom, who then addressed Griner on a TV screen overhead.
"Are you wearing a white shirt and a black jacket?" responded Griner, squinting back through cell bars at the screen in front of her.
In her final statement to the court, Griner asked the appeals judges to reconsider what the court in her trial had not: several procedural violations during the time of her arrest, as well as her years spent promoting women's basketball to fans in Russia.
Griner also noted she had admitted to accidentally bringing in a small amount of medicinal hashish oil into Russia — and yet was given very close to the maximum sentence during her previous trial.
"I really hope that the court will adjust this sentence because it has been a very very stressful and very traumatic to my mental psyche being away from my family and unable to communicate" with them, Griner said.
The court's ruling merely shaved a few weeks for time served in pretrial detention.
The U.S. condemns the ruling
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."
Speaking with reporters at the White House, President Biden said U.S. officials were in "constant contact with Russian authorities to get Brittney and others out, and so far, we've not been meeting with much positive response. But we're not stopping."
U.S. officials on the scene in Moscow were quick to assail Tuesday's court ruling as "excessive and disproportionate."
"Today was another sad day for the rule of law in the Russian Federation," the U.S. Embassy's Deputy Chief of Mission Elizabeth Rood told reporters outside the courthouse. "Nothing in the previous sentence, nothing in the results of today's appeal changes the fact that the U.S. government considers Griner to be wrongfully detained."
The Women's National Basketball Players Association also pointed to the extreme nature of the sentence as proof of the political nature of the case.
"This appeal is further verification that BG is not just wrongfully detained – she is very clearly a hostage," it said in statement, referring to Griner by her initials. "No athlete should be used as a political pawn."
Griner didn't expect "miracles"
According to Griner's legal team, in a statement ahead of Tuesday's ruling, the basketball star did "not expect any miracles," but had hoped her term would be reduced.
"She had some hopes and those hopes vanished today," her attorney Maria Blagavulina told journalists outside the courthouse, adding that Griner felt "doomed."
It's now been 9 months since Griner was first detained 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 August, a Russian court sentenced Griner to nine years in prison.
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.
Yet Griner's arrest and subsequent trial shadowed the conflict in Ukraine and cratering U.S.-Russian relations that her supporters say have informed the trial.
Griner's Russian lawyers also noted the American's nine-year sentence on drug charges was unusually harsh, even by Russian legal standards.
New possibilities for U.S.-Russia prisoner trade negotiations
With the appeals ruling, Griner's case appeared to set to move to a new phase of U.S.-Russian negotiations over a potential future prisoner exchange.
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 long insisted any deal would hinge on Griner's trial on drug charges coming to a formal end — a detail that appears now met, provided Griner doesn't further challenge the verdict.
Indeed, there were recent signs of progress on related negotiations behind the scenes.
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.
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.
Russian media have openly speculated the arrests were part of a U.S. attempt to exert leverage for a trade for Griner's release.
The Kremlin has condemned the detentions and vowed to do "everything possible" to defend the Russian nationals from extradition to the U.S.