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MOSCOW — Jailed American basketball star Brittney Griner will formally appeal her conviction and sentencing on drug smuggling charges in Russia on Tuesday — the latest stage in a legal drama that has shadowed a breakdown in U.S.-Russian relations over the conflict in Ukraine.
Griner will observe Tuesday’s Moscow court hearing by video feed from the women’s detention center where she is being held outside the Russian capital. According to a statement released by Griner’s legal team, the judge’s verdict on her appeal is expected the same day — with Griner holding out hope for a reduction in her prison term.
“Brittney does not expect any miracles to happen but hopes that the appeal court will hear the arguments of the defense and reduce the term,” read the statement.
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In August, a Russian court sentenced Griner to nine years in prison for carrying less than a gram (0.04 oz.) of hashish oil into Russia when she arrived for play in the Russian women’s professional basketball league earlier this year.
In court, Griner admitted to mistakenly packing two vape cartridges in her rush to pack her luggage — but provided documents that showed the oil was legally prescribed by her U.S. doctor for pain management. She also never failed a drug test.
The U.S. government has labeled Griner “wrongfully detained” and referred her case to the State Department’s office for hostage affairs amid charges the case was politically motivated.
Griner’s Russian lawyers have also noted the American’s nine-year sentence on drug charges was unusually harsh, even by Russian legal standards.
U.S.-Russia prisoner trade negotiations continue
Tuesday’s appeals hearing comes as Washington and Moscow have engaged in on-again, off-again talks over a potential prisoner exchange involving Griner.
The White House says it made a “substantial offer” over the summer — widely reported to involve a suggested trade of convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout — in exchange for Griner and another jailed American, former Marine Paul Whelan.
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White House officials also maintain that Griner’s freedom is an administration priority and repeatedly encouraged Moscow to take the deal or propose a serious counteroffer.
In a recent interview with CNN, President Biden said the only reason he would engage with Russian President Vladimir Putin at next month’s G-20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, would be to discuss Griner’s release.
Yet the Kremlin has insisted any deal will hinge on Griner’s trial on drug charges coming to a formal end — a detail that appears to place added significance to the appeals process, whatever the outcome.
There are potential signs of progress on negotiations
Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson — who has engaged in informal talks with Moscow on behalf of the Griner and Whelan families — said in August he came away “relatively optimistic” from conversations with Russian officials.
Then, earlier this month, Moscow’s Ambassador to the U.S. Antoly Antonov revealed he had visited Bout, the Russian arms dealer, at his prison in Illinois, where he is serving a 25-year sentence.
“He’s counting on and hoping for a decision from Moscow on this matter,” Antonov told Russia’s state RIA-Novosti news service, referring to Bout.
“With a nice, pleasant smile we parted on that note,” added Antonov.
Dimming that optimism: last week’s arrests in Germany and Italy of two Russians — including the son of a regional governor — on a U.S. request in Europe. The two were arrested for alleged sanctions evasion and illegal sale of U.S. technologies to Russian arms firms active in Ukraine.
The Kremlin has condemned the detentions and vowed to do “everything possible” to defend the Russian nationals from extradition to the U.S. Russian media have openly speculated the arrests were part of a U.S. attempt to exert leverage for a trade for Griner’s release.
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Meanwhile, Griner remains in prison outside Moscow, where she recently marked her 32nd birthday far from friends and family.
In their statement released ahead of Tuesday’s hearing, her legal team described Griner as nervous about the road ahead, and acknowledged that public pressure on Washington, rather than the legal system, were more likely to play a role in her possible release from prison.
“Brittney is very strong person and has a champion’s character,” her lawyers said in the statement. “However, she of course has her highs and lows as she is severely stressed being separated from her loved ones for over eight months.”
The statement also included a message from Griner herself, who was quoted as saying: “Thank you everyone for fighting so hard to get me home. All the support and love are definitely helping me.”
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