Brittney Griner: Lawyers file appeal against nine-year Russian jail sentence

Brittney Griner walks through a Russian court

Lawyers for Brittney Griner have filed an appeal against her daunting nine-year prison sentence in a Russian penal colony.

The queer US basketball, 31, was arrested in February at an airport near Moscow after cannabis-infused cartridges were found in her luggage.

She was jailed on 4 August for drug possession and trafficking in a sentence US president Joe Biden dubbed “unacceptable“.

Maria Blagovolina, a partner at Rybalkin Gortsunyan Dyakin and Partners law firm that is representing Griner, filed an appeal against the verdict on Monday (15 August), Reuters reported.

This was the final day Griner’s defence team could have contested the verdict, which was reached earlier in August by the Khimki City Court. The appeal will likely take three months to be adjudicated, her attorneys added.

Griner, who played for Russian team Yekaterinburg during the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) off-season, had little chance of being acquitted by Russian authorities, her legal team long warned.

They attempted to soften the Phoenix Mercury player’s inevitable sentence by having her plead guilty, something which they argued judge Anna Sotnikova did not properly take into account in her ruling.

The appeal comes as talk of a prisoner swap between the White House and the Kremlin begins to gain momentum.

Viktor Bout stands behind prison bars

The release of Viktor Bout has long been a high-priority of the Russian government. (Chumsak Kanoknan/ Getty Images)

Top Russian diplomat Aleksandr Darchiev told the Russian state news agency TASS that Russia is seeking the release of imprisoned arms dealer Viktor Bout in exchange for Griner and former US Marine Paul Whelan.

“The discussion of the quite sensitive topic of prisoner exchange of Russian and American citizens has been ongoing along the channels set out by the two presidents,” the director for the North American department at the Russian Foreign Ministry said, referring to a backchannel set up by Biden and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

For years Russia has eyed up the release of Bout, the so-called “Merchant of Death” who is serving a 25-year sentence in federal prison. He has been accused of selling deadly weapons to Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Rwandan militants.

Brittney Griner‘s conviction doesn’t quite compare to Bout’s. She was arrested at Sheremetyevo International Airport on 17 February on her way to Yekaterinburg. Airport security found vape cartridges with hashish oil in her luggage, something Griner said was an “honest mistake”.

“I want to apologise to my teammates, my club, my fans and the city of [Yekaterinburg] for my mistake that I made and the embarrassment that I brought on them,” Griner said in her final remarks in court.

“I want to also apologise to my parents, my siblings, the Phoenix Mercury organisation back at home, the amazing women of the WNBA, and my amazing spouse back at home.

“I made an honest mistake and I hope that, in your ruling, it doesn’t end my life here.”