A Russian court is considering Griner’s appeal against his nine-year sentence

A Russian court is considering Griner’s appeal against his nine-year sentence

MOSCOW (AP) – A Russian court on Tuesday began hearing American basketball star Brittney Griner’s appeal against her nine-year prison sentence for drug possession.

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

Griner is participating in the hearing held at the Moscow District Court via video call from the penal colony outside Moscow where he is being held.

Griner’s arrest in February 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 American League offseason.

Griner admitted to having the canisters in her luggage, but testified that she inadvertently packed them in a hurry and had no criminal intent. Her defense team provided written statements that she was prescribed cannabis to treat pain.

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

Before she was sentenced, the US State Department declared Griner “unlawfully detained” – a charge Russia strongly denied.

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

Blinken did not elaborate, but the Associated Press and other news organizations reported that Washington had offered to trade Griner and Whelan for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer serving a 25-year sentence in the US and once nicknamed the “dealer of death.”

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

Russian diplomats declined to comment on the US proposal and urged Washington to discuss it in confidential talks, avoiding public statements.

In September, US President Joe Biden met with Cherelle Griner, Brittney Griner’s wife, as well as the player’s agent, Lindsay Colas. Biden also sat 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 Corps veteran Trevor Reed in exchange for the US releasing Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, convicted of drug-trafficking conspiracy.

Moscow also protested the arrest of another Russian currently in US custody, Alexander Vinnik, who is accused of laundering billions of dollars through an illegal cryptocurrency exchange. Vinnik was detained in Greece after being arrested there in 2017 at the request of the US before being extradited to the US in August. It was not clear whether Russia would seek Vinnik’s release as part of a potential exchange.

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