Brittney Griner has lost her appeal and will spend nine years in a Russian penal colony unless the U.S. can intervene. The 32-year-old two-time Olympic and WNBA champion had the appeal of her sentence on drug charges heard today in a Russian courtroom. A three-judge panel upheld the ruling, as negotiations continued in private to secure her release and that of Paul Whelan, another American considered “wrongfully detained” per the U.S. State Department.
Griner was arrested on Feb. 17 at Sheremetyevo International Airport near Moscow. She was returning to the country to resume playing for UMMC Ekaterinburg, the Russian basketball team she helped lead to two championships. A trace amount of cannabis oil was found in vape cartridges during a search of her luggage. Griner pled guilty in August, saying she didn’t mean to break Russian law and that she packed hastily for her return to Russia. Given Russia’s 99% conviction rate, the plea was widely believed to help her avoid harsher punishment.
Though her Russian teammates testified on her behalf, she was sentenced to the maximum amount of nine years to be served in a Russian penal colony.
Her lawyers say she will not be moved there immediately, but a specific timetable is unclear. Griner is currently in a Moscow jail. Although there are two higher courts she can appeal to, all the way up to Russia’s Supreme Court, per the New York Times, her lawyers say they haven’t decided whether it’s worth the effort to do so.
“The verdict contains numerous defects, and we hoped that the court of appeal would take them into consideration,” they said in a statement after the appeal was denied. “We still think the punishment is excessive and contradicts to the existing court practice.”
Griner’s best chance at freedom is in the hands of negotiations between The State Department and Russian officials who rejected an effort to swap Griner and Whelan for convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout, serving out a 25-year sentence in the U.S.
Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security advisor, says the administration is committed to getting Griner and Whelan back to their families.
“The president has demonstrated that he is willing to go to extraordinary lengths and make tough decisions to bring Americans home,” Sullivan said, characterizing the appeal as a “sham judicial proceeding.”
On her 32nd birthday on Oct. 18, Griner was able to thank her supporters through her lawyers.
After the appeal was denied, the WNBA Players Association released a statement that said, “This appeal is further verification that B.G. is not just wrongfully detained. She is very clearly a hostage.”
NBA commissioner Adam Silver talked to ESPN’s Malika Andrews on Tuesday, expressing his and the league’s support for Griner.
“We have been very public about our belief that she deserves to be released at this point,” Silver said on First Take. “To the extent that she was convicted of a minor crime and that any punishment at this point is dramatically disproportionate. There should be mercy, of course, for anyone in her position.”
Penal colonies in Russia are known to be brutal places to be incarcerated. A NY Times report says that the colonies are descended from gulags, infamous Russian prisons where millions of Russians were left to die, but conditions have improved “markedly.” However, given where they started, the “improvements” may be minimal. The Times says that violence, forced labor, and inadequate medical care are the norm. Former Marine Trevor Reed, released from a Russia prison camp in April, described the conditions where he was housed for three years as “out of medieval times.”
Griner will be credited for time served, so her stay in a Russian penal colony now looms at eight years. Griner did not attend the appeal hearing in person but was shown wearing a red plaid jacket and glasses on a video link.
Per Associated Press, Secretary of State Antony Blinken described the denial of Griner’s appeal as “another failure of justice, compounding the injustice of her detention.” He said, “securing her release is our priority.”