MOSCOW (AP) – A Russian court on Tuesday began hearing American basketball star Brittney Griner’s appeal against her nine-year prison sentence for drug possession.
Griner, an eight-time All-Star center with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, was sentenced Aug. 4 after police said they found vaporizers containing cannabis oil in her luggage at Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow.
Griner participated in the Moscow Regional Court hearing by video call from a penal colony outside Moscow, where she is imprisoned.
Griner’s arrest in February came at a time of heightened tensions between Moscow and Washington, just days before Russia sent troops into Ukraine. Griner then returned to Russia, where he played during the American League offseason.
Griner admitted that he had the containers in his luggage, but testified that he packed them recklessly and hastily and had no criminal intent. His defense team submitted written statements saying he had been prescribed cannabis to treat the pain.
The nine-year sentence was close to the 10-year maximum, and Griner’s lawyers argued after the conviction that the punishment was excessive. They said defendants in similar cases have received an average sentence of about five years, with about a third of them on probation.
Before her sentencing, the US State Department said Griner was “detained by mistake”, a charge Russia has strongly denied.
Reflecting mounting pressure on the Biden administration to do more to bring Griner home, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken took the unusual step of publicly disclosing in July that Washington had made a “proposal substantial” to bring Griner home, along with Paul Whelan, an American serving a 16-year sentence in Russia for espionage.
Blinken did not elaborate, but The Associated Press and other news organizations have reported that Washington has offered to trade Griner and Whelan for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer serving a 25-year sentence in the US. once he earned the nickname “merchant of death”.
The White House said it has yet to receive a productive response from Russia to the offer.
Russian diplomats have declined to comment on the US proposal and have urged Washington to discuss the matter in confidential talks, avoiding public statements.
In September, US President Joe Biden met with Cherelle Griner, Brittney Griner’s wife, as well as the player’s agent, Lindsay Colas. Biden also sat separately with Elizabeth Whelan, Paul Whelan’s sister.
The White House said after the meetings that the president stressed to the families his “continued commitment to work through every avenue available to bring Brittney and Paul home safely.”
The US and Russia conducted a prisoner exchange in April. Moscow released US Marine veteran Trevor Reed in exchange for the US freeing a Russian pilot, Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was convicted of a drug-trafficking conspiracy.
Moscow has also pushed for the release of other Russians in US custody.
One of them is Alexander Vinnik, who was accused of laundering billions of dollars through an illicit cryptocurrency exchange. Vinnik was arrested in Greece in 2017 and extradited to the US in August.
Vinnik’s French lawyer, Frederic Belot, told Russian newspaper Izvestia last month that his client hoped to be part of a possible exchange.
The newspaper speculated that another possible candidate was Roman Seleznev, the son of a Russian lawmaker. He was sentenced in 2017 to 27 years in prison on charges of a hacking scheme and credit card fraud.
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