A Russian court has denied American basketball star Brittney Griner’s appeal to reduce her prison sentence for drug possession.
Tuesday’s denial paves the way for Ms Griner to serve nine years in a penal colony, unless the US government is able to negotiate a deal for her release.
The 32-year-old WNBA star has been detained in Russia for eight months after illegal cannabis oil was allegedly found in her luggage by officials at a Moscow airport. Her detainment occurred shortly before Russia launched its war in Ukraine, with geopolitical tensions making it undoubtedly more difficult to secure her release.
In July, Ms Griner pleaded guilty to the charge of illegal drug possession and in August, she was handed down a nine-year sentence, which was close to the maximum of 10 years.
Throughout Tuesday’s proceedings, Ms Griner’s lawyers argued that her punishment was excessive, highlighting how similar cases in the country had amounted to much less severe sentences of five years. About a third of those cases, they added, were granted parole.
“The punishment imposed on Griner does not correspond to the gravity of the crime,” Maria Blagovolina, one of the lawyers representing Ms Griner, said.
“Nine years in prison is a sentence that contradicts judicial practice,” she added. “There was no intent in her actions … The substance was used for medical purposes.”
Defence lawyer Alexander Boykov echoed his colleague’s pleas during Tuesday’s appeal, arguing that the punishment was not only not in line with international legal norms, but was also outside of the norm for the Russian legal system.
The decision in the closely followed appeals came down from three judges who were presiding over the court in Krasnogorsk near Moscow, while Ms Griner was watching the trial via video link from a detention centre in the town of Novoye Grishino, just outside Moscow.
Ms Griner’s family, friends and fans – alongside many public figures – have been calling on Russia to free her for months and for the US State Department to intervene since she was taken into custody at the airport on charges of large-scale transportation of illegal narcotics.
At her trial over the summer, the Russian government presented evidence that the WNBA star “bought two cartridges for personal use, which contained 0.252 grams and 0.45 grams of hash oil,” according to a courtroom report from state news agency Tass.
A week after the initial trial, Ms Griner appeared in the Russian courtroom while clutching a photo of her wife Cherelle as she told a judge she would plead guilty.
“I’d like to plead guilty, your honour. But there was no intent. I didn’t want to break the law,” Ms Griner said, speaking English which was then translated into Russian for the court. In early August, she was handed down a sentence of nine years behind bars.
While making her final statement in the Russian courtroom on Tuesday, Ms Griner again apologised for the “mistake” she’d made but once more reupped that she had not intended to break any laws.
“I was barely over the significant amount [of cannabis oil] … People with more severe crimes have gotten less than what I was given,” she said, while emphasising how mentally taxing her eight-month detention and two trials had been for both her and her family.
“I did not intend to do this,” she closed, before asking the court to take into account the fact that she had pleaded guilty to the charges this past summer.
Ms Griner’s defence team argued on her behalf during the hearing by claiming that the expert who analysed the cartridges that led to her arrest was “unqualified” and asked that her “excessively harsh” sentence be reduced, NBC News reported.
In the ruling the court stated that the time the WNBA star will have to serve in prison will be recalculated – with her time in pre-trial detention taken into account.
One day in pre-trial detention will be counted as 1.5 days in prison, so the basketball player will have to serve around eight years in prison.
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