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Brittney Griner appeals 9-year prison sentence in Russia

Russian court on Aug. 4 convicted WNBA star of drug smuggling.

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A Brittney Griner mural in D.C. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

MOSCOW — Lawyers for WNBA star Brittney Griner on Monday appealed the nine-year prison sentence she received earlier this month after a Russian court convicted her of smuggling drugs into the country.

The court on Aug. 4 convicted Griner — a Phoenix Mercury center and two-time Olympic gold medalist who is a lesbian and married to her wife, Cherelle Griner — and sentenced her to nine years in a penal colony.

Officials at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February detained Brittney Griner after customs inspectors allegedly found hashish oil in her luggage. The State Department subsequently determined that Russia “wrongfully detained” her.

Brittney Griner in July pleaded guilty to the drug smuggling charges.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has publicly acknowledged the U.S. has offered Russia a deal to secure the release of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, another American citizen who is serving a 16-year prison sentence after his conviction for spying.

American officials have reportedly expressed a willingness to release Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who is serving a 25-year prison sentence in the U.S., as part of a prisoner swap.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov last week said his country was “ready to discuss” a potential deal with the U.S. A spokesperson for Russia’s Foreign Ministry later confirmed negotiations between the two countries over a potential prisoner swap have begun.

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Russian official confirms negotiations over WNBA star Brittney Griner 

Speaking publicly last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had confirmed that he was “ready to discuss” a potential deal

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Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ivan Nechayev (Screenshot/YouTube)

MOSCOW – Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ivan Nechayev told Russian reporters in a press briefing on Thursday, that negotiations are underway to release WNBA star Brittney Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan in a prisoner exchange.

Speaking publicly last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had confirmed that he was “ready to discuss” a potential deal, however, the comments today from his spokesperson were the first public acknowledgement that talks were ongoing.

According to Nechayev, the talks are happening within the parameters previously set for diplomatic communications between the two super-powers by Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Joe Biden.

“We proceed from the fact that the negotiations should take the interests of both sides into account,” he stressed to reporters “We would recommend abandoning futile attempts to put pressure on us and we are calling on them to concentrate on practical work along the available channels. There is no other way,” Nechayev added.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken had previously acknowledged the U.S. has offered Russia a deal to secure the release of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, another American citizen who is serving a 16-year prison sentence after his conviction for spying.

Nechayev had noted that the exchange of prisoners was one of the topics discussed in a telephone conversation between the Russian Foreign Minister and the U.S. Secretary of State in late July.

Although specific details have not been made public, U.S. officials had offered Moscow to exchange Russian businessman Viktor Bout, who is serving a prison term in the US for arms trafficking, for Griner, sentenced to jail for drugs trafficking, and Whelan, a former U.S. Marine and American businessman, convicted in Russia of spying.

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Brittney Griner convicted in Russia

WNBA star sentenced to nine years in penal colony

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MOSCOW — A Russian court on Thursday found WNBA star Brittney Griner guilty of charges that she smuggled drugs into the country.

The court sentenced Griner to nine years in a Russian penal colony. Prosecutors had sought a 9 1/2-year prison sentence.

Griner — a Phoenix Mercury center and two-time Olympic gold medalist who is a lesbian and married to her wife, Cherelle Griner — spoke in court earlier on Thursday.

“I had no intent on breaking any Russian law,” said Brittney Griner.

Officials at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February detained Brittney Griner after customs inspectors allegedly found hashish oil in her luggage. The State Department subsequently determined that Russia “wrongfully detained” her.

Brittney Griner last month pleaded guilty to the drug smuggling charges.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has publicly acknowledged the U.S. has offered Russia a deal to secure the release of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, another American citizen who is serving a 16-year prison sentence after his conviction for spying.

American officials have reportedly expressed a willingness to release Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who is serving a 25-year prison sentence in the U.S., as part of a prisoner swap.

“Today, American citizen Brittney Griner received a prison sentence that is one more reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney,” said President Joe Biden in a statement after Brittney Griner’s conviction and sentencing. “It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates. My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible.”

National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby during the White House’s daily press briefing described the sentence as “reprehensible in its scope” and stressed Griner “shouldn’t have even been on trial.”

“I certainly can’t get inside the head of a Russian judge,” said Kirby. “We have seen similar maximum sentences for drug charges of foreigners in Russia. Just historically speaking, foreigners that are arrested on drug charges and then convicted under their system tend to get much higher sentences than would be Russian citizens.”

Elizabeth Rood, the chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, described the verdict as “a miscarriage of justice” in a statement she read to reporters outside the court. Blinken in his own statement agreed.

“Today’s conviction and sentencing by a Russian court of U.S. citizen Brittney Griner to nine years in prison further compounds the injustice of her wrongful detention,” said Blinken. “This step puts a spotlight on our significant concerns with Russia’s legal system and the Russian government’s use of wrongful detentions to advance its own agenda, using individuals as political pawns.”    

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver issued a joint statement after the court announced its verdict and sentencing.

“Today’s verdict and sentencing is unjustified and unfortunate, but not unexpected and Brittney Griner remains wrongfully detained,” reads the statement. “The WNBA and NBA’s commitment to her safe return has not wavered and it is our hope that we are near the end of this process of finally bringing BG home to the United States.”

The Human Rights Campaign also condemned the conviction and sentencing.

“This sentencing is unjust, plain and simple,” tweeted HRC. “Brittney Griner deserves to be back home with her family and loved ones.”

Blinken said “nothing about today’s decision changes our determination that Brittney Griner is wrongfully detained, and we will continue working to bring Brittney and fellow wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Paul Whelan home.” 

“This is an absolute priority of mine and the department’s,” he stressed.

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Russia

U.S. offers a deal to Russia aimed at release of WNBA star Brittney Griner

Blinken’s statement marked the first public acknowledgment that the American government had taken action to secure the release of Griner

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Brittney Griner appears in Russian court room on Wednesday, July 27, 2022 (Screenshot/YouTube KPRC Houston,TX)

WASHINGTON – U. S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said today that the Biden Administration had offered the Russian government a deal to obtain the release of jailed WNBA star Brittney Griner and another jailed American, Paul Whelan.

The Secretary’s statement marked the first public acknowledgment that the American government had taken action to secure the release of Griner, who was arrested on drug-related charges at a Moscow airport last February.

Blinken did not offer details on the proposed deal, which was offered weeks ago, and it is unclear if it will be enough for Russia to release the Americans. But the public acknowledgment of the offer at a time when the U.S. has otherwise shunned Russia, reflects the mounting pressure on the administration over Griner and Whelan and its determination to get them home the Associated Press reported.

Blinken also indicated that the administration would like a response from Moscow.

Russia has for years expressed interest in the release of Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer once labeled the “Merchant of Death,” who was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2012 on charges that he schemed to illegally sell millions of dollars in weapons.

The AP also noted that Blinken said he had requested a call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. U.S. officials said the desire for an answer on the prisoner offer was the primary, but not only, reason that the U.S. on Wednesday requested the call with Lavrov.

Griner, who faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of transporting drugs had appeared Wednesday in a Russian courtroom to testify on her own behalf.

Voice of America’s Moscow Bureau reported that the WNBA star admitted arriving in Russia in February with vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage, testifying during Wednesday’s hearing that a language interpreter provided to her translated only a fraction of what was being said as authorities arrested her.

Griner said she was offered neither an explanation of her rights as she was detained nor access to lawyers to explain the documents she signed.

During a Tuesday court session, a Russian neuropsychologist testified about worldwide use of medicinal cannabis, but the drug remains illegal in Russia. Griner’s lawyers have presented a U.S. doctor’s letter recommending that she use medical cannabis to treat pain, which she says she has sustained from her basketball career.

Griner’s U.S. supporters say she is being held as a political pawn, possibly for a prisoner swap. Russian officials say no exchange can be discussed until her legal proceedings are completed.

Additional reporting from Voice of America and the Associated Press

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