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Russian court denies Brittney Griner’s appeal of 9-year prison sentence

National security adviser Jake Sullivan said Tuesday’s decision was the product of "another sham judicial proceeding" for the WNBA star.
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A Russian court on Tuesday denied WNBA star Brittney Griner’s appeal and upheld her nine-year prison sentence on drug charges.

Griner, 32, looked despondent as she appeared at the hearing in the Moscow Regional Court via video conference from the detention center where she has been held since her arrest in February. The athlete is now expected to be moved to a penal colony.

Griner’s conviction in August was decried by the United States, which has said the athlete is being wrongfully detained. The denial of her appeal will see hopes for Griner's release shift to the potential for a high-profile prisoner swap.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan said Tuesday's decision was the product of "another sham judicial proceeding."

"President (Joe) Biden has been very clear that Brittney should be released immediately," he said, adding that the Biden administration has in recent weeks "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."

Griner’s attorneys said the decision was “not what we expected” and added that it could take months before the WNBA star is transferred to a penal colony.

“We are very disappointed,” they said. “We still think the punishment is excessive.”

They said Griner’s “biggest fear” is that a prisoner swap will not take place and she could have to serve out the entirety of her sentence in Russia. “She had hopes for today as each month, each day away from her family and friends matters to her,” they said.

The attorneys said they planned to use “all the available legal tools, especially given the harsh and unprecedented nature of her verdict” and would discuss the next steps with Griner.

Griner had been “quite pessimistic about the outcome” of the appeal ahead of Tuesday’s hearing, one of her attorneys, Maria Blagovolina, said Monday.

The WNBA star had held hope there would be a reduction to her sentence, but did not believe the verdict would be overruled, Blagovolina said on MSNBC’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports.”

Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist who plays for the Phoenix Mercury, was sentenced in August to nine years in prison on drug charges.

She was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February, after Russian authorities said they found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage.

Griner pleaded guilty in July but said that it was an accident, that she had brought them to Russia unintentionally and that she had packed hurriedly for a flight. Medical cannabis, which is illegal in Russia, is legal in most of the U.S.

When she was detained, Griner had been in Russia to play for a Russian Premier League women’s team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, as she had done since 2014.

Lawyers for Griner filed an appeal in August, after she was sentenced. Her wife, Cherelle Griner, has said Brittney Griner is being held hostage.

In a statement read out in court Tuesday prior to the appeal verdict, Griner said that she “did not intend to do this,” but understood the charges brought against her. She said she hoped it would be taken into account that she “did plead guilty” in the case.

The athlete said she hoped the court would adjust her sentence as she described her time behind bars as “stressful” and “traumatic.”

The U.S. has proposed a prisoner exchange with Russia for the release of Griner and another American, Paul Whelan, a corporate executive who has been detained there since 2018, two sources familiar with the matter said. The deal would include the U.S. releasing imprisoned Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, the sources have said.

In April, Russia released American Trevor Reed in exchange for the U.S. releasing Russian drug trafficker Konstantin Yaroshenko, who had been sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Reed, a former Marine, was sentenced to nine years in prison in Russia in 2020 after authorities there said he assaulted a Russian police officer after a night of drinking. Reed and his family have maintained his innocence.