Russian court denies Brittney Griner's appeal, sending WNBA star to a penal colony for at least 8 years

Key Points
  • A Russian court denied WNBA star Brittney Griner's appeal on Tuesday after the American athlete was convicted on drug charges earlier this year.
  • Griner, who plays professional basketball in Russia during the WNBA offseason, was arrested in February after Russian authorities found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage.
  • In August, Griner was sentenced to nine years in prison.
  • Griner's lawyers said she could appeal to a higher court.
US' Women's National Basketball Association (NBA) basketball player Brittney Griner, who was detained at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport and later charged with illegal possession of cannabis, stands inside a defendants' cage before a court hearing in Khimki outside Moscow, on August 4, 2022. 
Evgenia Novozhenina | AFP | Getty Images

WASHINGTON — A Russian court upheld WNBA star Brittney Griner's nine-year prison sentence on Tuesday, a decision that will send the U.S. athlete to a penal colony.

The court near Moscow upheld the original sentence which the state prosecutor called "fair."

Griner has about eight years left on her sentence though another appeal is possible through Russia's court of cassation, the highest court of appeals. It is not clear if her lawyers will pursue another appeal.

"We think we should use all legal tools available but that is her decision to take," Maria Blagovolina, Griner's lawyer, told reporters outside of the court. Blagovolina added that the two-time Olympic gold medalist was disappointed to hear the decision from the three-judge panel.

"She had some hope but that vanished today," Blagovolina said.

Griner, who plays professional basketball in Russia during the WNBA offseason, was arrested in February after Russian authorities found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport.

Her lawyers said Griner only uses cannabis medically and unintentionally packed the cannabis canisters in her suitcase because the professional athlete was in a hurry.

Under Russian law, the charge carried a penalty of up to 10 years in prison. In August, Griner was found guilty and sentenced to nine years. She was also ordered to pay 1 million rubles, approximately $16,301.

Griner's lawyers added that they will see the 32-year-old athlete, who appeared in court via video conference, next week. Blagovolina said that Griner last spoke to her family by telephone one week ago.

US basketball player Brittney Griner, who was sentenced to nine years in a Russian penal colony in August for drug smuggling, is seen on a screen via a video link from a remand prison before a court hearing to consider an appeal against her sentence, at the Moscow regional court on October 25, 2022.
Kirill Kudryavtsev | AFP | Getty Images

The White House called for Griner's immediate release following Tuesday's "sham judicial proceeding."

"The president has demonstrated that he is willing to go to extraordinary lengths and make tough decisions to bring Americans home, as his administration has done successfully from countries around the world," national security advisor Jake Sullivan wrote in a statement.

Sullivan added that the Biden administration remains in regular touch with the families of wrongfully detained U.S. citizens.

'I'm terrified I might be here forever'

US WNBA basketball superstar Brittney Griner stands inside a defendants' cage before a hearing at the Khimki Court, outside Moscow on July 26, 2022. 
Alexander Zemlianichenko | AFP | Getty Images

The court's guilty verdict came as the Biden administration scrambled to secure her release.

A week before the verdict, the Biden administration confirmed it made an offer to the Russian government for the release of Griner and the former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan.

Days before she pleaded guilty last month, Griner wrote a letter to President Joe Biden asking for his direct help with her case.

"I sit here in a Russian prison, alone with my thoughts and without the protection of my wife, family, friends, Olympic jersey, or any accomplishments, I'm terrified I might be here forever," the professional athlete wrote in a July 5 letter.

"I realize you are dealing with so much, but please don't forget about me and … other American detainees. Please do all you can to bring us home," Griner wrote.

After receiving the letter, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris called the WNBA star's wife, Cherelle Griner. Biden also wrote a response to Griner that U.S. diplomats hand-delivered in Moscow.

Biden reassured her wife that he is working to secure Griner's release as soon as possible, according to a White House readout of the call. He also told Cherelle Griner that he is working to release Whelan, who is serving a 16-year sentence in Russia.

Whelan was arrested in 2018 on charges of acting as a spy for the United States. At the time he was arrested, Whelan was visiting Russia to attend a wedding, according to his brother, David Whelan. 

Griner's arrest and subsequent detention came as the West issued repeated warnings to Russian President Vladimir Putin to draw down the hundreds of thousands of troops staged along Ukraine's border. In the wake of Russia's full-scale invasion of its ex-Soviet neighbor, the U.S. and its allies unleashed a slew of punishing sanctions on Moscow and built up a multibillion-dollar war chest for Kyiv.

Two months into the war, Russia agreed to release former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed in a prisoner exchange.

Reed was accused of assaulting a Russian police officer and detained by authorities there in 2019. He was later sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison. Reed and his family have maintained his innocence, and the U.S. government described him as unjustly imprisoned.

For Reed's release, Biden agreed to free Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot serving a 20-year federal prison sentence for conspiracy to smuggle cocaine into the U.S.

Russia says it's ready to discuss a prisoner swap for Brittney Griner
Russia says it's ready to discuss a prisoner swap for Brittney Griner