Brittney Griner loses appeal in Russia

Illustration by Emily Coscia (@emilycosciaart)

Brittney Griner’s long-awaited appeal hearing of her nine and a half year sentence was denied on Tuesday, Oct. 25. The Russian appeals court upheld the sentence Griner received on Aug. 4, after she endured a lengthy detention and trial. An Olympic gold medalist and WNBA champion, Griner is also a Russian basketball champion, having led her UMMC Ekaterinburg team to five back-to-back championships since she began playing for them in 2014. 

The U.S. government declared Griner’s detention “wrongful” in early May and has pledged to get her released. That pledge was reiterated Tuesday by both President Biden and State Department Spokesperson Ned Price, who spoke about Griner’s appeal and sentence in a press briefing Oct. 25. 

On Feb. 17, Griner was detained at the Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport for carrying a small amount of hash oil in a vape pen. Her arrest was not made public until March 5.  

Rather than a simple possession charge which would have allowed her release, Griner was charged with drug smuggling — a charge that implies that she was attempting to smuggle cannabis oil with intent to distribute and sell the drug. But as was revealed at her trial, the amount of oil she was carrying was minuscule — barely enough to share with a single other person. 

Throughout the early period of her detention, Griner was mocked on Russian TV for being a lesbian, and there are concerns about how Griner will be treated once she is moved to a penal colony now that her appeal has been denied.

The appeal hearing featured a subdued Griner who testified from a cell via a video link provided by the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service to the courtroom at the Moscow Regional Court in Moscow. 

“I did not intend to do this,” Griner said, “but I understand the charges against me, and I just hope that that is also taken into account,” and apologized again. 

Griner’s sentence — just under the maximum — has always been considered harsh and politically motivated, her detention coming as it did at the outset of the Russian attack on Ukraine.

Griner said to the court, “I’ve been here almost eight months and people with more severe crimes have gotten less than what I was given.”

In a statement after the hearing, Griner’s attorneys said, “We are very disappointed. The verdict contains numerous defects, and we hoped that the court of appeal would take them into consideration. We still think the punishment is excessive.”

The attorneys said they were considering whether to ask a higher Russian court to intervene on Griner’s behalf.

“We need to discuss this with our client,” the statement said. “We generally think that we must use all the available legal tools, especially given the harsh and unprecedented nature of her sentence.”

They added, “Brittney does not expect any miracles to happen, but hopes that the appeal court will hear the arguments of the defense and reduce the number of years.”

Yet, as PGN has previously noted, Russia’s higher courts rarely overturn verdicts. This would be even less likely given Griner’s case involves foreign policy. It is presumed that the only recourse now for Griner is a possible prisoner exchange. Secretary of State Antony Blinken proposed such an exchange in June, but the Kremlin has not responded to the offer. On Oct. 25, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in a conference call with reporters that “we always say that any contacts about possible exchanges can only be conducted in silence under a tight lid on any information.”

U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said in a statement that Biden “is willing to go to extraordinary lengths and make tough decisions to bring Americans home.”

Sullivan also said “We are aware of the news out of Russia that Brittney Griner will continue to be wrongfully detained under intolerable circumstances after having to undergo another sham judicial proceeding today.”

Ned Price opened his press briefing on Oct. 25 by saying “As you heard from the Secretary and from the National Security Advisor, today is another sad day for ‘justice’ in Russia. And we use that term ‘justice’ loosely because there has been no justice in this case. There has been no rule of law in this case. This process, to put it simply, has been a sham.”

Price said, “The denial of Brittney Griner’s appeal is another repudiation of justice, which only compounds the original injustice of her detention. Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney Griner and fellow U.S. citizen Paul Whelan. Nothing about Brittney’s conviction or the denial of this appeal today changes that.”

He added, “Secretary Blinken and President Biden have been clear that they should be released. That’s why this summer, Secretary Blinken came to this very room to speak about the substantial proposal we made to Russia for the release of Brittney and Paul. We believe Russia should engage seriously and in good faith on this proposal, and we have continued to urge Moscow to do so, including in recent days.”

Prior to opening to questions, Price concluded, “The department has no higher priority than the well-being, the fair treatment, and justice for all of our citizens detained in Russia and in other parts of the world. We will not relent until all wrongfully detained Americans, including Brittney and Paul, are reunited with their loved ones.” 

In response to further questions on negotiating Griner’s release, Price said communications between Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and Secretary Blinken were ongoing and said, “This process has not moved as swiftly as we would have liked. We have certainly not gotten to the point that we would have liked by now. Brittney Griner has been in detention, wrongfully detained for the better part of a year, for some nine months.”

Price noted, “It was the only time Secretary Blinken has spoken to Foreign Minister Lavrov during the course of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and it sent a very clear signal that is something we are absolutely focused on.” 

PGN submitted further questions to the State Department, for our ongoing coverage of Griner. 

PGN noted that last week we were told there would be a State Department representative at Griner’s hearing and asked if there was one, since she hasn’t been seen by any U.S. official since her conviction on August 4. PGN also asked if there is any knowledge of her health status — mental as well as physical? Does State have an official statement on the fact that her appeal was denied? What about the fact she is being sent to a penal colony? Has anyone from the US government been in touch with her wife and family? 

PGN also asked about further details on negotiating Griner’s release.

In a statement offered on background and attributable to a State Department spokesperson, PGN was told, “Representatives from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, including Chargé d’Affaires Rood, were in attendance. U.S. Embassy officials last spoke with Ms. Griner by phone on October 18.” 

October 18 also happened to be Griner’s 32nd birthday

The State Department spokesperson said, “We are closely engaged on this case and in frequent contact with Ms. Griner’s legal team and her family.” 

They added, “Our most vulnerable U.S. citizens abroad are those who are arrested or detained in a foreign country. Consular officers continue to monitor her case closely and advocate for her fair treatment, as well as consistent, timely consular access to Ms. Griner in detention.” 

In addition, PGN was told, “As Secretary Blinken said, ‘There was a substantial proposal on the table earlier this summer to facilitate their release. Our governments have communicated repeatedly and directly on that proposal.’ The Russians should engage with our negotiations in good faith and take the deal that is on the table. President Biden has been very clear that Brittney should be released immediately. In recent weeks, we have continued to engage with Russia through every available channel and make every effort to bring Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan home. “

In a statement released on Twitter, the WNBA denounced the appeals court ruling, saying, “This appeal is further verification that B.G. is not just wrongfully detained — she is very clearly a hostage.”

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.