A Russian court rejected American basketball star Brittney Griner’s appeal of a conviction on what most human rights watchdogs say are trumped-up charges of “drug smuggling,” meaning the WNBA All-Star is likely to be transferred to a penal colony to carry out a 9-year prison sentence.
“We are very disappointed,” Griner’s lawyers said in a statement after a three-judge appeals court panel upheld the conviction. ” The verdict contains numerous defects, and we hoped that the court of appeal would take them into consideration.”
The decision means Griner, one of the most prominent lesbian sports stars in the United States, will begin serving her sentence soon. It is unclear whether all of Griner’s legal options have been exhausted, but her lawyers have also said they have not decided whether to take the case any further by appealing the decision to two higher courts, reports The New York Times.
Higher courts in Russia are loathe to overturn verdicts, especially given the larger geopolitical implications of Griner’s imprisonment. Her high-profile conviction allows Russia to embarrass the United States at a time when the latter is sending aid to Ukraine to help the Eastern European country defend itself from invading Russian troops, and has imposed sanctions against Russia in response to the invasion.
Jake Sullivan, the U.S. National Security Advisor to President Joe Biden, denounced the appeals court ruling as “another sham judicial proceeding” and called for Griner to be “released immediately.”
Griner, 32, was arrested at a Moscow airport in February, just days prior to Russia invading Ukraine, after customs officials allegedly found two vape cartridges containing less than one gram of hashish oil, a drug made from parts of the cannabis plant, which is banned in Russia.
The All-Star center for the Phoenix Mercury had traveled to Russia to play basketball for an oligarch-owned basketball team, EMMC Yekaterinburg, during the WNBA off-season, in order to earn extra money. She later pleaded guilty to the drug smuggling charges against her, but said she had not intention of breaking the law, and that she had forgotten to remove the vape cartridges from her luggage in error.
Griner’s lawyer say they expect her to be moved to a penal colony in Siberia, but she may not be transferred for a few months. According to the Times, penal colonies are the descendants of gulags, the Soviet-era labor camps where millions of political prisoners were held for their crimes and forced to submit to long work days, with some eventually dying as a result.
Aleksei Navalny, a well-known political prisoner, described the experience at a penal colony in an interview last year, describing the atmosphere as one where prisoners adhere to a strict schedule and are under constant surveillance. Navalny, who was transferred to a maximum security prison in June, currently works for seven hour shifts at a sewing machine.
American officials have accused Russia of using Griner and other U.S. citizens in Russian custody as political pawns. The United States previously offered the idea of a prisoner swap in which Griner and Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine in Russian custody, would be released in exchange for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer serving a 25-year federal prison sentence for conspiring to kill Americans. However, Russian officials have said it is premature to negotiate while legal proceedings are ongoing.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin are expected to attend a summit of Group of 20 leaders next month in Indonesia, with Biden saying he will only speak with the Russian leader in the latter agrees to discuss Griner’s case.
Bill Richardson, a former ambassador to the United Nations who has been unofficially negotiating with Russian officials as a private citizen in order to get Griner released, said earlier this month that he was “cautiously optimistic” that Griner — and Whelan — could be exchanged before the end of the year.
Griner’s wife, Cherelle, previously appeared on CBS Mornings earlier this month to bring attention to her wife’s case and urge the U.S. government to coordinate Griner’s release as soon as possible. She told news host Gayle King that her most recent conversation with her wife was so troubling it left her in tears for two to three days afterward.
Last week, on the day of her birthday, Griner sent a message of thanks to well-wishers, thanking them for all their support and love at this time.
That same day, Steph Curry, the star of the Golden State Warriors and the NBA Finals MVP, used the team’s ring ceremony — celebrating its fourth NBA championship in the past eight seasons — to call attention to Griner’s plight.
“We want to continue to use our platform and take the opportunity to shout out a very special member of the basketball community,” Curry said. “Brittney Griner’s birthday is today. She’s 32 years old. We want to continue to let her name be known.
“It’s been 243 days since she was wrongfully incarcerated in Russia, and we hope that she comes home soon,” he continued. “Everybody is doing their part to get her home.”
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