A judge in Russia left Brittney Griner’s verdict in place, upholding the American basketball star’s drug trafficking conviction on Tuesday and only slightly reducing her nine-year prison sentence.
Griner’s sentence will be amended to count the time she served in pretrial detention following her Feb. 17 arrest at a Moscow airport, the judge said, with each day in pretrial detention counting as 1.5 days toward her sentence. jail. It was not immediately clear how much that would reduce the sentence.
The decision came after an appeal hearing on Tuesday in which Griner again apologized as she and her lawyers asked the court for a more lenient sentence, arguing the verdict was unjust and unjustified under the Russian law. Lawyers urged the court to acquit him, calling his sentence disproportionate and the previous court’s ruling was wrong to say Griner had criminal intent.
“I have been here for almost eight months, and people who have committed more serious crimes have received less than what I have received,” Griner said Tuesday, appearing in court via video link from his detention center, correctional colony No. 1 in Novoye. Grishino, north of Moscow.
The decision means that “the legal proceedings (are) practically over,” defense attorney Alexander Boykov of the Moscow Law Center told CNN in anticipation of the outcome.
Griner, a two-time U.S. Olympic gold medalist, feared he would have to serve the rest of his sentence in Russia if his appeal was denied and the U.S. and Russia couldn’t reach a prisoner swap deal, he said. .
The US State Department has argued that Griner was wrongfully detained, and her case has raised concerns that she could be used as a political pawn in the context of Russia’s war on Ukraine. The Biden administration recently reached out to Russia to try to secure the release of Griner and imprisoned American Paul Whelan, a senior administration official told CNN last week.
Griner was first 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 his luggage. Griner plays in Russia during the WNBA offseason.
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The Phoenix Mercury All-Star Center pleaded guilty to drug charges, telling the court during her trial that vape cartridges containing cannabis oil were in her luggage because she had packed her bags at haste.
In court on Tuesday, defense attorney Maria Blagovolina questioned the Russian examination of Griner’s alleged drug use, calling the results of that examination “dubious and unconfirmed.” “Continued narcotics use is incompatible with a career as a professional athlete,” added Blagovolina, a partner at law firm Rybalkin, Gortsunyan, Dyakin and Partners.
“No lawyer can honestly say that this verdict is consistent with Russian judicial practice,” Boykov said.
The two lawyers have previously indicated that they believe Griner’s nine-year sentence was extreme, with Blagovolina calling it “very severe for this type of crime and this amount of this substance”.
Before the hearing, Blagovolina and Boykov called Griner a “strong person” with a “championship character” who was nevertheless “severely stressed from being separated from her loved ones for more than eight months”.
The court hearing the appeal could have left Griner’s verdict in place, overturned it and returned it to the lower court, or reduced his prison sentence, his lawyers said.
“She is very nervous waiting for the appeal hearing,” they added in a written statement to CNN. “Brittney doesn’t expect miracles to happen but hopes the appeals court will hear the defense’s arguments and reduce the term.”
As the Griner case unfolds, U.S. officials have separately offered a potential prisoner swap with Russia, offering to swap convicted Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout for Griner and Whelan, a U.S. citizen detained 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 ‘pretty persistent’ pace of talks between US and Russia to secure Americans’ release, official says Biden administration has yet to receive a serious counter-offer from Russia .
“They are not insensitive. I would say they keep responding with something they know is not feasible or available,” the official said of the Russian response.
Former Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico – whose eponymous center works on behalf of families of hostages and detainees, and who recently visited Russia to discuss the possible release of Griner and Whelan – recently said that he was “cautiously optimistic” that the two Americans could be released.
Richardson, who also served as US ambassador to the United Nations under President Bill Clinton, said he was working with both of their families and coordinating with the White House to work for their release. 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 shine a light on her case and maintain support and pressure to ensure she is brought home, launching a #WeAreBG campaign. on social networks. After months of pressure, Cherelle Griner met with Biden last month, telling CNN the meeting demonstrated the administration’s commitment to bringing his wife home.
“It wasn’t a meeting where the president told me the news I want to hear,” Cherelle Griner said. “It wasn’t that, but it was one of those still crucial meetings where…it gave me confidence in what he’s doing right now.”
As for Griner, she turned 32 last week and celebrated her birthday in a cell in suburban Moscow, her lawyers 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 all for fighting so hard to get me home,” Griner said in a post shared by his attorneys. “All the support and love is definitely helping me.”