Brittney Griner loses appeal in Russian court

If Brittney Griner is going to return to the U.S. anytime soon, it almost certainly will happen via a prisoner exchange.

The jailed American basketball star exhausted the last of her legal options on Tuesday when her last-gasp appeal predictably went nowhere.

A Moscow regional court upheld Griner’s August conviction on charges of drug possession and drug smuggling with criminal intent. The court rejected arguments from Griner’s defense attorneys that her nine-year prison sentence was excessive and unjustified under Russian law.

[UPDATE: Brittney Griner released from Russian prison 10 months after arrest]

Griner participated in Tuesday’s appeal hearing via video call from behind the white bars of her jail cell at a detention center outside Moscow. She has been held there since last February when she flew into Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport and Russian police allegedly found cannabis oil vape cartridges in her luggage.

Many of the arguments presented by Griner’s lawyers during Tuesday’s appeal hearing mirrored those from her trial. Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov argued that the initial conviction and sentencing completely ignored that Griner was carrying less than a gram of cannabis oil, that she didn't intend to break Russian law and that she used the substance for medical purposes.

At the end of Tuesday’s hearing, Griner spoke directly to the court. Calling it “traumatic” to be away from her family, Griner begged the court to take into account what went “overlooked” during her first court date and to “reassess her sentence.”

Those words fell on deaf ears, just like they did on Aug. 4 when a Russian judge handed down a sentence just shy of the maximum allowable 10 years. In a statement to the media after Tuesday's hearing, Blagovolina and Boykov said they were "very disappointed" and reiterated that they "still think the punishment is excessive and contradicts existing court practice."

"Brittney’s biggest fear is that she is not exchanged and will have to serve the whole sentence in Russia," the statement from Griner's attorneys said.

Within hours of the conclusion of Griner's appeal hearing, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan slammed it as a "sham judicial proceeding." Sullivan said the Biden Administration "has continued to engage with Russia through every available channel and make every effort to bring home Brittney as well as to support and advocate for other Americans detained in Russia, including fellow wrongful detainee Paul Whelan."

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 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 American basketball star Brittney Griner's appeal against her nine-year prison sentence for drug possession. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
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 a courtroom prior to a hearing at the Moscow Regional Court in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2022. (AP)

Since the appeals court rejected Griner's appeal and endorsed the lower court’s initial verdict, the eight-time WNBA all-star soon may have to endure somewhere worse than the Novoye Grishino pre-trial detention center where she has been held the past eight months. Her sentence calls for her to be transferred to a penal colony, where conditions can be more brutal and inmates are required to perform labor during their sentence.

There are hundreds of penal colonies in Russia, many of them scattered across Siberia. Griner’s attorneys are expected to ask for her to be sent somewhere close to Moscow so that they can maintain contact with her, but the final decision will not be theirs.

"This decision is not immediate and it usually takes up to [a] few months for [someone] convicted to be transferred to another location," Blagovolina and Boykov said in their statement.

On the eve of her appeal hearing, Blagovolina and Boykov released a statement describing Griner as “very nervous.” They added that “Brittney does not expect any miracles to happen, but hopes that the appeal court will hear the arguments of the defense and reduce the number of years.”

Experts in Russian foreign policy cautioned Griner not to get her hopes up. They’ve warned for months that her legal process is merely theater. They’ve said that its only real purpose is to lend a veneer of legitimacy to the Kremlin’s desire to hold her until it can extract concessions out of the U.S. in exchange for her safe return.

As Griner’s attorneys have argued on her behalf in the courtroom, the question of her fate has also been discussed at the highest levels of U.S.-Russian diplomacy. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has pressed Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov to accept what Blinken has described as a “substantial proposal” to secure the release of Griner and Paul Whelan, another American whom the U.S. government considers wrongfully detained.

The offer for Griner and Whelan is believed to be a 2-for-1 exchange for a notorious Russian arms trafficker known as “the Merchant of Death.” Viktor Bout is serving a 25-year sentence in an Illinois federal prison for conspiring to kill Americans and sell weapons to Colombian terrorists.

Thus far, Russia has shown no signs that an exchange for Bout alone is a sufficient offer. After traveling to Moscow to meet with Russian officials last month, Bill Richardson, the former New Mexico governor and diplomat who now advocates for the release of Americans held overseas, told CNN, “I think it’s going to be a 2-for-2.”

President Joe Biden met with Griner’s wife at the White House last month and reiterated that securing the WNBA star’s release is a top priority for his administration. Days after that meeting, Cherelle Griner told "CBS Mornings" that Griner is at her “absolutely weakest moment in her life right now” and is “very afraid of being left and forgotten in Russia.”

In their statement on Monday, Griner’s attorneys acknowledged the toll her case has taken on her.

“Brittney is very mentally strong and has a champion’s character,” they said. “However, she of course has her highs and lows as she is under an increasing amount of stress and has been separated from her loved ones.”