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

Brittney Griner stands in a defendants’ cage in Russian court hearing during her trial. (Evgenia Novozhenina/AFP via Getty Images)

A Russian court has denied WNBA star Brittney Griner’s appeal of her nine-year sentence for drug possession in what a U.S. government official called a “sham judicial proceeding.”

The Phoenix Mercury center has been detained in Russia since February. She was convicted in August and sentenced to nine years in a penal colony. The 32-year-old appeared in court via video call Tuesday for the hearing of her appeal, but the Moscow court upheld the original sentencing, which was close to the 10-year maximum.

Griner’s lawyers argued that the sentence was excessive. In similar cases, defendants receive an average sentence of five years, with a third of them being granted parole, her legal team said.

“The verdict contains numerous defects and we hoped that the court of appeal would take them into consideration,” her lawyers said in a statement. “We still think the punishment is excessive and contradicts to the existing court practice.”

While the court did uphold Griner’s sentence, the ruling did say her pre-trial detention will be included. One day in pre-trial detention will count as 1 1/2 days in prison, which would reduce her time in a penal colony to about eight years.

The two-time Olympic gold medalist pleaded guilty during her trial to having vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage but called it an “honest mistake.”

She was accused of having less than a gram of cannabis in her possession. In Russia, possession of less than six grams of cannabis is supposed to garner no more than a fine or up to 15 days in jail.

With 99 percent of Russian court cases resulting in a conviction, though, Griner likely pleaded guilty as a strategy to expedite her trial. Also, before any prisoner swap could take place with the United States, the Russian government likely would have required an admission of guilt from Griner.

“The whole point of a state like Russia arresting an American is not because it’s a legitimate criminal proceeding, but because they intend to use them as a hostage,” said Dr. Dani Gilbert, a hostage taking and recovery expert.

Griner is being held in a Moscow jail pending her appeal, and a transfer to a penal colony could take weeks or months, ESPN’s T.J. Quinn reported. The U.S. government aims to bring her home before any transfer, Quinn said.

The U.S. government considers the eight-time WNBA All-Star to be wrongfully detained, and officials have been working to bring Griner and fellow American detainee Paul Whelan back to U.S. soil.

“We are aware of the news out of Russia that Brittney Griner will continue to be wrongfully detained under intolerable circumstances after having to undergo another sham judicial proceeding today,” U.S. national security advisor Jake Sullivan said in a statement Tuesday. “President Biden has been very clear that Brittney should be released immediately.”

The Biden administration has proposed a prisoner swap with Russia, and the U.S. government has been involved in “active discussions, including in recent days” as it works to free Griner and Whelan, U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Monday.

President Joe Biden met with Griner’s wife, Cherelle, and with Whelan’s sister in separate meetings in September to assure them of the government’s continued efforts.

“I’ve felt every minute of the grueling seven months without her,” Cherelle Griner said in a statement at the time. “I look forward to the day my wife is back home.”

The WNBA Players Association, as well as many individual players, took to social media to express their continued support for Griner in the wake of the appeal decision.

“No athlete should be used as a political pawn,” the WNBPA said in its statement.