Brittney Griner appeals Russian drug conviction

Chantal Da Silva and Yuliya Talmazan
US WNBA basketball superstar Brittney Griner arrives to a hearing at the Khimki Court, outside Moscow on July 27, 2022. 
Kirill Kudryavtsev | AFP | Getty Images

WNBA star Brittney Griner's defense team has filed an appeal against her conviction on drug charges in Russia, nearly two weeks after she was sentenced to nine years in jail by a Moscow court.

Her lawyer Maria Blagovolina said Monday the defense team had filed the appeal, in a statement via the Telegram messaging app. The move, which was widely expected, comes as Russia and the United States discuss a potential prisoner swap that would secure Griner's release.

The American basketball player was arrested at a Moscow airport on Feb. 17 after authorities said they found cannabis-infused vape cartridges in her luggage.

Griner, 31, pleaded guilty to the charges, but said she made an "honest mistake" in entering Russia with cannabis oil, which is illegal in the country, after she had hurriedly packed for her flight.

She was sentenced on Aug. 4 to 9 years in Russian prison after being found guilty of drug possession and smuggling, after making an emotional final plea for leniency.

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The U.S. government has maintained that Griner was wrongfully detained.

It has offered to exchange her and Paul Whelan, a corporate executive who has been detained in Russia since 2018, for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who has been serving a 25-year prison sentence in the U.S,  according to two sources familiar with the matter. But Russia has shown no sign of accepting the offer, and has decried Washington's decision to publicize it in an effort to step up the pressure for a deal.

Russia said following Griner's sentencing it was ready to discuss the possibility of a prisoner swap, however.

A senior Russian diplomat confirmed over the weekend that the above names had been mentioned during bilateral talks.

"The discussion of the very sensitive topic of the exchange of imprisoned citizens of Russia and the United States is taking place within the framework of the channels determined by our presidents," said Alexander Darchiev, director of the North American Department of Russia's foreign ministry, in an interview with state news agency TASS. He added: 'The mentioned names are really being considered."

Darchiev said Moscow has "long been seeking the release of Viktor Bout," but said: "The details should be left to professionals, based on the principle of 'do no harm'."

Darchiev credited the approach with helping facilitate the "quick and successful exchange" of former U.S. marine Trevor Reed, who was convicted in Russia for assaulting a police officer, for Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko.