WNBA players union on denied appeal: Griner is a ‘hostage’

Sports

(NewsNation) — A Russian court on Tuesday rejected American basketball star Brittney Griner’s appeal of her nine-year prison sentence for drug possession.

Griner’s been held for 250 days since her arrest in February at a Moscow airport. Last week she spent her 32nd birthday behind bars.

Griner, an eight-time all-star center with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, was convicted Aug. 4 after police said they found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport.

Griner took part in the proceedings held at the Moscow Regional Court via video call from a penal colony outside Moscow where she is being held.

Griner’s February arrest came at a time of heightened tensions between Moscow and Washington, just days before Russia sent troops into Ukraine. At the time, Griner was returning to Russia, where she played during the U.S. league’s offseason.

WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner is seen on the bottom part of a TV screen as she waits to appear in a video link provided by the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service in a courtroom prior to a hearing at the Moscow Regional Court in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2022. A Russian court on Tuesday started hearing Griner’s appeal of her nine-year prison sentence for drug possession. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Griner admitted that she had the canisters in her luggage, but testified that she had inadvertently packed them in haste and that she had no criminal intent. Her defense team presented written statements that she had been prescribed cannabis to treat pain.

The nine-year sentence was close to the maximum of 10 years, and Griner’s lawyers argued after the conviction that the punishment was excessive. They said in similar cases defendants have received an average sentence of about five years, with about a third of them granted parole.

Before her conviction, the U.S. State Department declared Griner to be “wrongfully detained” — a charge that Russia has sharply rejected.

Reflecting the growing pressure on the Biden administration to do more to bring Griner home, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken took the unusual step of revealing publicly in July that Washington had made a “substantial proposal” to get Griner home, along with Paul Whelan, an American serving a 16-year sentence in Russia for espionage.

Blinken didn’t elaborate, but The Associated Press and other news organizations have reported that Washington has offered to exchange Griner and Whelan for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who is serving a 25-year sentence in the U.S. and once earned the nickname the “Merchant of Death.”

The White House said it has not yet received a productive response from Russia to the offer.

Russian diplomats have refused to comment on the U.S. proposal and urged Washington to discuss the matter in confidential talks, avoiding public statements.

In September, U.S. President Joe Biden met with Cherelle Griner, the wife of Brittney Griner, as well as the player’s agent, Lindsay Colas. Biden also sat down 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 working through all available avenues to bring Brittney and Paul home safely.”

The Biden administration carried out a prisoner swap in April, with Moscow releasing Marine veteran Trevor Reed in exchange for the U.S. releasing a Russian pilot, Konstantin Yaroshenko, convicted in a drug trafficking conspiracy.

Moscow also has protested the arrest of another Russian currently in U.S. custody, Alexander Vinnik, who was accused of laundering billions of dollars via an illicit cryptocurrency exchange. Vinnik had been in custody in Greece after being arrested there in 2017 at U.S. request before being extradited to the U.S. in August. It wasn’t clear if Russia might demand Vinnik’s release as part of a potential swap.

If a prisoner swap doesn’t materialize, Griner could serve the rest of her sentence in the prison. A state department report last year described conditions in the system of prison camps in Russia as harsh and possibly life-threatening.

The report says “Overcrowding, abuse by guards and inmates, limited access to health care, food shortages, and inadequate sanitation were common in prisons, penal colonies, and other detention facilities.”

The WNBA Players Association released a statement Tuesday pressuring the Biden administration to bring Griner home, saying in part: “This appeal is further verification that BG is not just wrongfully detained. She is very clearly a hostage.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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