A Russian court has rejected an appeal by the US basketball player Brittney Griner against her nine-year prison sentence for possession and smuggling of drugs.
The two-time Olympic gold medallist was arrested on 17 February at a Moscow airport with vape cartridges containing cannabis oil, which is banned in Russia.
She was sentenced on 4 August to nine years in a penal colony. Now that her appeal has failed, Griner could be moved to one of Russia’s far-flung prison colonies within weeks.
Although Griner’s legal team said she was not “expecting any miracles” from the appeals process, the decision nonetheless would be a blow to the sports star, who pleaded guilty to the drug charges in July and has thrown herself several times on the mercy of the Russian court only to be given an unusually harsh sentence, even for Russia.
“I beg that the court takes in all of the stakes that was overlooked in the first court and reassess my sentence here,” Griner said, according to ABC News, apologising for her “mistake” and saying it has been “traumatic” to be away from her family.
The decision also indicates that the Biden administration has had little success in negotiating for her freedom through back channels, as lawyers for other detained Americans have suggested the two sides may be close to a deal involving a swap of jailed Russians and Americans.
Griner’s lawyers, Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov, said they were “very disappointed” in Tuesday’s ruling.
“Brittney’s biggest fear is that she is not exchanged and will have to serve the whole sentence in Russia,” they said. “She had hopes for today as each month, each day away from her family and friends matters to her.”
After the ruling, a senior US official called the court hearing a “sham judicial proceeding” and called on Russia to release Griner.
“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,” said the national security adviser, Jake Sullivan.
“President Biden has been very clear that Brittney should be released immediately. In recent weeks, the Biden-Harris administration has continued to engage with Russia through every available channel and make every effort to bring home Brittney as well as to support and advocate for other Americans detained in Russia, including fellow wrongful detainee Paul Whelan.”
The case also has political implications in the US, where the government has faced accusations of failing to prioritise the cases of Americans who have been detained by geopolitical adversaries.
“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.”