MOSCOW (AP) — A Russian court began hearing American basketball star Brittney Griner’s appeal on Tuesday against her nine-year prison sentence for drug possession.
Griner, an eight-time star center with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, was sentenced Aug. 4 after police said they found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage at the Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow.
Griner is participating in the session held at the Moscow Regional Court via video call from a penal colony outside Moscow where she is being held.
Griner’s arrest in February came at a time of heightened tensions between Moscow and Washington, just days before Russia sent troops to Ukraine. At the time, Griner was returning to Russia, where she played in the American League offseason.
Griner admitted she had the canisters in her luggage, but testified that she inadvertently hastily packed them and had no criminal intent. His defense team presented written statements that he was prescribed cannabis to treat the pain.
The nine-year sentence was close to the 10-year maximum, and Griner’s attorneys argued after sentencing that the sentence was excessive. They said that in similar cases, defendants received an average sentence of about five years, and about a third of them were granted parole.
Prior to her sentencing, the US State Department declared Griner “wrongfully detained” – a charge Russia has firmly 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 revealing in July that Washington had made a “substantial offer.” to bring Griner home, with Paul Whelan, an American serving a 16-year sentence in Russia for espionage.
Blinken did not give details, but The Associated Press and other news organizations reported that Washington had offered to trade Griner and Whelan for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who is serving a 25-year sentence. in the United States and who once 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 declined to comment on the US proposal and urged Washington to discuss the issue in confidential talks, avoiding public statements.
In September, US President Joe Biden met with Brittney Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, and 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 emphasized to the families his “continuing commitment to working through every avenue available to bring Brittney and Paul home safely.”
The Biden administration carried out a prisoner swap in April, with Moscow freeing Navy veteran Trevor Reed in exchange for the US release of a Russian pilot, Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was convicted of a drug trafficking conspiracy.
Moscow also protested the arrest of another Russian currently in US custody, Alexander Vinnik, accused of laundering billions of dollars through an illicit cryptocurrency exchange. Vinnik had been detained in Greece after being arrested there in 2017 at the request of the United States before being extradited to the United States in August. It was unclear whether Russia could demand Vinnik’s release as part of a potential swap.
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