MOSCOW (AP) — A Russian court on Tuesday rejected an appeal by U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner of her nine-year prison sentence for drug possession, a step that could move her closer to a possible high-stakes prisoner swap between Moscow and Washington.
The eight-time all-star center with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist was convicted Aug. 4 after police said they found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport.
Griner, 32, was not at the Moscow Regional Court hearing but appeared via video link from a penal colony outside the capital where she is held.
At her trial, Griner admitted to having the canisters in her luggage but testified she packed them inadvertently in her haste to make her flight and had no criminal intent. Her defense team presented written statements saying she had been prescribed cannabis to treat chronic pain.
The nine-year sentence was close to the maximum of 10 years, and Griner’s lawyers argued after the conviction that the punishment was excessive. They said in similar cases defendants have received an average sentence of about five years, with about a third of them granted parole.
While upholding the sentence, the court said Griner’s prison time will be recalculated to reflect what she has already served in pre-trial detention. One day in pre-trial detention will be counted as 1 1/2 days in prison, so she still will have to serve about eight years in prison.
Griner’s lawyers Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov said in an email that they were “very disappointed” with the decision because they still believe “the punishment is excessive and contradicts to the existing court practice.”
“Britthey’s biggest fear is that she is not exchanged and will have to serve the whole sentence in Russia,” they said. “She had hopes for today, as each month, each day away from her family and friends matters to her.”
They said they had to discuss with Griner what legal steps they should take next.
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 play for a Russian team during the WNBA’s offseason.