A Russian court rejected U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner’s appeal against her more than nine-year prison sentence on drug charges Tuesday.
The U.S. government characterizes her arrest as a “wrongful detainment.”
Griner appeared in court via video link from detention outside Moscow on Tuesday. Her lawyers asked for a suspended sentence, while Russian prosecutors maintained that 9½ years, just shy of the maximum of 10 years, is fair. Griner’s attorneys earlier said she wasn’t expecting “miracles.”
“We are very disappointed,” Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov, Griner’s attorneys, said in a statement. “We still think the punishment is excessive and contradicts to the existing court practice.”
Griner addressed the court through an interpreter. “I want to apologize for this mistake,” she said. “I did not intend to do this, but I understand the charges brought against me,” adding that she hoped that her guilty plea was taken into account.
Griner’s attorneys said they would confer with their client about the possibility of further appeals and that they intended to make use of “all the available legal tools.” Once the appeal process is over, she is set to be transferred to a penal colony.
Russia has one of the highest incarceration rates in Europe. Most of its prison facilities are known as penal colonies, in which prisoners are required to perform labor. Investigations by Russian media outlets have brought to light prisoner abuse in such facilities.
The White House condemned the court’s decision Tuesday. “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 adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement. “President Biden has been very clear that Brittney should be released immediately.”
Biden weighed in briefly Tuesday, in response to questions shouted by reporters outside an event in Washington. “We’re in constant contact with Russian authorities to get Brittney and others out,” he said.
One path to resolve her situation — and that of Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine also imprisoned in Russia — could be an exchange of prisoners. Griner’s biggest fear is that she will not be exchanged and will have to serve the entire sentence in Russia, her lawyers said.
“In recent weeks, the Biden-Harris Administration has continued to engage with Russia through every available channel and make every effort to bring home Brittney as well as to support and advocate for other Americans detained in Russia, including fellow wrongful detainee Paul Whelan,” Sullivan said.
In August, Russia acknowledged for the first time that negotiations were underway to release Griner and Whelan, but it did not confirm media reports indicating a potential swap for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer serving a 25-year sentence in the United States.
Griner, a 6-foot-9 center with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, was detained Feb. 17 while trying to enter Russia at the Sheremetyevo International Airport near Moscow, where she plays during the WNBA offseason. She turned 32 a week ago while in prison, an occasion family and friends used to call for her release and safe return to the United States.
Tuesday’s ruling came in the wake of a Moscow court’s decision Monday to reject the appeal of Russian opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza, who was seeking to overturn the approval of his pretrial detention. He has been charged with spreading false information, following criticism of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Griner’s wife, Cherelle, said in an interview with “CBS Mornings” co-host Gayle King on Oct. 6 that she was able to speak to the basketball star twice via phone since her imprisonment and that the second phone call was “disturbing,” leaving her in tears for days.
“It was the most disturbing phone call I’ve ever experienced,” Cherelle Griner said. “You could hear that she was not okay.”
Annabelle Timsit contributed to this report.