A Russian court on Tuesday rejected an appeal from US basketball star Brittney Griner of her nine-year prison term on drug charges, dismissing her plea for the “traumatic” sentence to be reduced.
The court in Krasnogorsk near Moscow ruled to leave Griner’s August verdict “without change” in the case that came amid fierce tensions between Moscow and Washington over Russia’s military offensive in Ukraine.
US President Joe Biden’s administration dismissed the ruling as “another sham judicial proceeding” that will keep Griner “wrongfully detained under intolerable circumstances” and vowed to continue pressing for her release.
“The President has demonstrated that he is willing to go to extraordinary lengths and make tough decisions to bring Americans home,” US National Security advisor Jake Sullivan said in a statement.
Griner, a star in the Women’s National Basketball Association in the US, had pleaded by video link from her detention centre just outside the Russian capital for the sentence to be cut.
“I really hope that the court will adjust this sentence because it has been very, very stressful and very traumatic,” Griner said.
The 32-year-old was handed nine years in prison in August for possessing vape cartridges with a small quantity of cannabis oil, after she was arrested at a Moscow airport in February.
Speaking slowly so her words could be translated into Russian, Griner asked the court for leniency given that the amount of cannabis found was “barely over the significant amount”.
“I don’t understand the first court’s decision to give one year less than the max when I’ve been here almost eight months and people with more severe crimes have gotten less than what I was given,” she said.
“So I just beg that the court… reassess my sentence.”
Not expecting ‘miracles’
Griner’s lawyers said they were disappointed by Tuesday’s decision as it goes against standard legal practice.
“Other defendants in similar criminal cases receive punishment in the form of a suspended sentence or a jail term not exceeding six years,” Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov said in a statement.
“Thus, Brittney Griner remains one of the most severely punished defendants in Russia.”
The lawyers said Griner is doing fine physically and that she spoke to her family last week on her birthday, but Tuesday’s decision was hard for Griner to take.
“She had some hopes and these hopes vanished today,” Blagovolina told reports outside the court house.
WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said the ruling “was not unexpected and Brittney Griner remains wrongly detained.”
“It is time to bring this case to an end and bring BG home.”
Griner’s lawyers hope to speak to her later this week about whether she wants to continue appealing the verdict in higher courts.
When she was arrested, the two-time Olympic basketball gold medallist and Women’s NBA champion had been in Russia to play for the professional Yekaterinburg team, during her off-season from the Phoenix Mercury Women’s National Basketball Association side.
She pleaded guilty to the charges, but said she did not intend to break the law or use the banned substance in Russia.
Griner had testified that she had permission from a US doctor to use medicinal cannabis to relieve pain from her many injuries, and had never failed a drug test.
The use of medical marijuana is not allowed in Russia.
In August, Moscow said it was ready to discuss a prisoner swap for Griner, but there has been no apparent progress.
Reports have suggested that Griner and another American jailed in Russia, Paul Whelan — a former US marine arrested in December 2018 and accused of spying — could be traded for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms trafficker serving 25 years in jail on a 2012 conviction.