Lawyers for the American basketball star Brittney Griner said Monday that they have filed an appeal of her guilty verdict by a Russian court in a drug smuggling case that has turned into a diplomatic standoff.
The appeal comes nearly two weeks after Griner was found guilty and sentenced to nine years in prison on charges stemming from her February arrest in a Moscow airport.
It also comes at a time when the United States and Russia are engaged in discussions regarding a potential prisoner swap involving Griner and Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who is currently serving a 25-year prison sentence in the United States.
U.S. officials have also sought the release of Paul Whelan, an American citizen who has been detained in Russia since 2018 on espionage charges, in such an exchange.
The New York Times reported that Griner’s “legal team has said that the appeal, which was expected, would most likely take up to three months to be adjudicated,” and that “Russian officials have said that all legal avenues must be exhausted before a potential exchange can be discussed.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said late last month that the United States’ offer to release Bout in exchange for Griner and Whelan represented a “substantial proposal,” but Russian officials have so far balked at the arrangement.
As reported by CNN and others, Alexander Darchiev, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s North American Department director, confirmed the prisoner negotiations over the weekend.
“This quite sensitive issue of the swap of convicted Russian and US citizens is being discussed through the channels defined by our Presidents. These individuals are, indeed, being discussed. The Russian side has long been seeking the release of Viktor Bout. The details should be left to professionals, proceeding from the ‘do not harm’ principle,” Darchiev told Russian state media TASS, as quoted by CNN.
Griner, who pleaded guilty to the drug charges but insisted she did not intend to break the law, was convicted on August 4. Prosecutors had sought a nine-and-a-half year prison sentence––only slightly lower than the maximum sentence of 10 years. The judge presiding over the case handed down a nine year sentence.
Griner was arrested on February 17 while traveling back to Russia to play for UMMC Ekaterinburg, a Russian team for whom she has suited up during the WNBA’s offseason since 2014.
Authorities at the airport found cannabis oil in her luggage, leading to a prolonged detention that has become another source of tension between the United States and Russia.
In May, the U.S. Department of State reclassified Griner as “wrongfully detained.”
President Joe Biden denounced Griner’s guilty verdict and conviction earlier this month, and vowed to bring her home.
“It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates,” Biden said in a statement.
“Today, American citizen Brittney Griner received a prison sentence that is one more reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney,” he added.
“My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible,” the president continued.
At a hearing last month, Griner testified that the language interpreter provided by Russian authorities during her questioning provided incomplete translations of what she said, and that she was never provided a sufficient explanation of her rights.
According to The New York Times, Griner’s “defense team argued in the appeal that the Khimki court had ignored ‘serious procedural violations during detention, extraction of physical evidence, arrest and investigation.’”