Brittney Griner’s attorneys are appealing her verdict in a Russian court Tuesday, nearly three months after the US basketball star was convicted of smuggling drugs into the country and sentenced to nine years in prison.
Griner’s appeal is being considered in the Moscow Regional Court, with an outcome expected Tuesday after her attorneys were set to argue the verdict was unfair and unjustified under Russian law, they told CNN.
Griner, 32, attended the hearing via video conference from her detention center, speaking briefly to confirm her name, according to her legal team. It was not clear if she would make any more statements during the hearing, which began two hours later than scheduled at the request of her lawyers, who didn’t give a reason for the brief postponement.
The court hearing the appeal can choose to leave Griner’s verdict in place, overrule it and send it back to the lower court, or reduce Griner’s prison term, according to the lawyers, Alexander Boykov of the Moscow Legal Center and Maria Blagovolina, a partner at Rybalkin, Gortsunyan, Dyakin and Partners law firm.
If the Khimki city court’s decision is upheld, the “legal process will be basically over,” Boykov said. In the meantime, Griner, a two-time US Olympic gold medalist, is concerned she will have to serve out the remainder of her sentence in Russia if her appeal is unsuccessful and if the United States and Russia can’t strike a deal for a prisoner swap, he said.
Both attorneys have indicated they felt Griner’s nine-year sentence was extreme, with Blagovolina calling it “very severe for this type of crime and this amount of this substance.”
The US State Department has maintained Griner is wrongfully detained, and her case has prompted concern that she is being used as a political pawn amid the backdrop of Russia’s war against Ukraine. The Biden administration recently communicated with Russia to try to secure the release of Griner and imprisoned American Paul Whelan, a senior administration official told CNN last week.
Griner was initially taken into custody at a Moscow airport on February 17 – days before the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – when authorities accused her of trying to smuggle less than a gram of cannabis oil in her luggage. Griner plays in Russia during the WNBA’s offseason.
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The All-Star center for the Phoenix Mercury pleaded guilty to drug charges, telling the court during her trial that vape cartridges containing the cannabis oil were in her luggage because she had packed her bags in a hurry.
“Brittney is very strong person and has a champion’s character,” Blagovolina and Boykov told CNN in a written statement ahead of Griner’s appeal. “However, she of course has her highs and lows as she is severely stressed being separated from her loved ones for over eight months.”
“She is very nervous waiting for the appeal hearing,” they added. “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.”
While Griner’s case plays out, US officials have separately proposed a potential prisoner swap with Russia, offering to exchange convicted Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout for Griner and Whelan, an American citizen who’s been held by Russia for alleged espionage since 2018. Whelan, who has consistently denied the charges, was convicted and sentenced in June 2020 to 16 years in prison.
Despite the “pretty persistent” pace of discussions between the US and Russia to secure the Americans’ release, the official said that the Biden administration has yet to receive a serious counteroffer from the Russian side.
“They’re not nonresponsive. I would say that they continue to respond with something that they know not to be feasible or available,” the official said of the Russian response.
Former Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico – whose namesake center works on behalf of families of hostages and detainees, and who recently traveled to Russia to discuss the possible release of Griner and Whelan – recently said he was “cautiously optimistic” the two Americans could be released.
Richardson, who also served as US ambassador to the United Nations under President Bill Clinton, said he’s working with both their families and coordinating with the White House to work toward their releases. The former governor played a role in the release of Trevor Reed, an American veteran detained in Russia for three years before his release in April.
Meanwhile, Griner’s wife Cherelle and their supporters have continued to highlight her case and maintain support and pressure to ensure she’s brought home, starting a #WeAreBG campaign on social media. After months of pushing, Cherelle Griner met last month with Biden, telling CNN the meeting illustrated the administration’s commitment to bringing her wife home.
“It wasn’t a meeting where the President told me the news that I want to hear,” Cherelle Griner said. “It wasn’t that, but it was one of those still pivotal meetings where … it allowed me to have confidence in what he’s doing right now.”
As for Griner, she turned 32 last week, celebrating her birthday in a cell in the suburbs of Moscow, her attorneys told CNN. They spent a few hours with her in an effort to “cheer her up” as much as they could, relaying birthday messages from around the world.
“Thank you everyone for fighting so hard to get me home,” she said in a message shared by her attorneys. “All the support and love are definitely helping me.”