A judge in Russia has left Brittney Griner’s verdict in place, upholding on Tuesday the US basketball star’s conviction on drug smuggling charges and reducing only slightly her nine-year prison sentence.
Griner’s sentence will be modified to count the time she spent in pretrial detention after her February 17 arrest at a Moscow airport, the judge ruled, with each day in pretrial custody counting as 1.5 days toward her prison sentence. It was not immediately clear exactly how much that would reduce the sentence.
The decision came after an appeal hearing Tuesday at which Griner, whom the US considers wrongfully detained, again apologized as she and her attorneys asked the court for a more lenient sentence, arguing the verdict was unfair and unjustified under Russian law. The attorneys urged the court to acquit her, calling her sentence disproportionate and the previous court ruling wrong in saying Griner had criminal intent.
“I’ve been here almost eight months, and people with more severe crimes have been given less than what I was given,” Griner said Tuesday, appearing at the hearing via video link from her detention center, Correctional Colony No. 1 in Novoye Grishino, north of Moscow.
“I really hope the court will adjust this sentence,” she said before the judgment, “because it has been very, very stressful and very traumatic to my mental and my psyche and being away from my family, not being able to communicate.”
Griner’s attorneys expressed disappointment after the hearing, saying in a statement the verdict “contains numerous defects” and they feel “the punishment is excessive.”
US officials have tried to secure the release of Griner and Paul Whelan, another American imprisoned in Russia, by proposing a prisoner swap with Russia. Those efforts have continued in recent weeks, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Tuesday in a statement that called the latest hearing a “sham,” adding, “President Biden has been very clear that Brittney should be released immediately.”
At a Covid-19 vaccination event, the President said: “We have not been meeting with much positive response but we’re not stopping.”
The Biden administration has had conversations with Russia on the matter in recent days, State Department spokesman Ned Price said on CNN. “This has not been a static process, we are continuing to urge them to engage and engage them seriously on this,” he said.
But with her appeal unsuccessful, Griner, a two-time US Olympic gold medalist, is concerned she will have to serve out the remainder of her sentence in Russia, her attorneys said, if the United States and Russia can’t strike a deal for a prisoner swap.
“She had hopes for today,” the lawyers said, “as each month, each day away from her family and friends matters to her.”
The US State Department has maintained Griner is wrongfully detained, and her case has prompted concern she is being used as a political pawn amid the backdrop of Russia’s war against Ukraine. That has not changed, the most senior American diplomat in Moscow told reporters Tuesday outside the Moscow Regional Court.
“Nothing in the previous sentence, nothing in the result of today’s appeal changes the fact that the United States government considers Griner to be wrongfully detained,” US Embassy Charge d’Affaires Elizabeth Rood said.
Griner was initially taken into custody 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.
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.
In court Tuesday, defense attorney Maria Blagovolina cast doubt on the Russian examination of Griner’s alleged drug use, calling the results of that examination “doubtful and unconfirmed.” “Continuous narcotic substance use is incompatible with a career as a professional athlete,” added Blagovolina, a partner at Rybalkin, Gortsunyan, Dyakin and Partners law firm.
“No lawyer will be able to say in all honesty that this verdict is in line with Russian judicial practice,” Griner’s other attorney, Alexander Boykov of the Moscow Legal Center, said.
Both attorneys previously 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.”
Ahead of the hearing, Blagovolina and Boykov called Griner a “strong person” with a “champion’s character” who was nevertheless “severely stressed being separated from her loved ones for over eight months.”
The court hearing the appeal could have left Griner’s verdict in place, overruled it and sent it back to the lower court, or reduced her prison term, her lawyers said.
“She is very nervous waiting for the appeal hearing,” they added in a written statement to CNN. “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.”
Blagovolina told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Tuesday that the next step would be a second appeal, “but normally we do not expect much from this legal step.”
The lawyer said the basketball star is a “fighter” and has been holding up well, but she was visibly upset with Tuesday’s decision.
“Of course she didn’t expect much from today’s hearing, but still she did have some hope, in a way you could see from her face that she was very, very upset when the court hearing ended,” Blagovolina said.
Blagovolina said that it’s still early to discuss what conditions Griner might face while incarcerated, but she could end up in a penal colony.
US officials work to secure Griner’s release
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, a senior administration official told CNN last week 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.
The WNBA on Tuesday reiterated its desire to see Griner brought home, saying in a statement the outcome of her appeal “is further verification that BG is not just wrongfully detained – she is very clearly a hostage.”
“We must unite and support the stated public commitment of the Biden Administration and Congressional leaders to do everything possible to get her home,” the statement said, adding, “No athlete should be used as a political pawn.”
Griner’s agent, Lindsay Colas, called a Moscow court’s rejection of Griner’s appeal “disappointing, yet unsurprising,” and said the basketball star was “being held by Russia simply because she is an American.”
Colas thanked the Biden administration and other outside groups for advocating for Griner’s return.
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,” Griner said in a message shared by her attorneys. “All the support and love are definitely helping me.”
CNN’s Arlette Saenz, Niamh Kennedy, Matthew Chance, Kylie Atwood and Jennifer Hansler contributed to this report.