On Tuesday morning, a Russian court rejected WNBA star Brittney Griner’s appeal and upheld her nine-year prison sentence, after she appeared in court via video link. Griner is now expected to be sent to a penal colony, where she will begin serving her sentence, according to the New York Times.
“We are very disappointed,” Griner’s lawyers Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov said in a statement after the rejection, which was decided by a three-judge panel at an appeals court near Moscow, according to The Times. “The verdict contains numerous defects, and we hoped that the court of appeal would take them into consideration.” One such defect, as previously mentioned in Griner’s court testimony, was Russian officials’ failure to read or translate Griner her rights.
President Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, called the decision “another sham judicial proceeding” and said in a statement to the Times that Griner “should be released immediately.”
There are technically additional avenues Griner’s team could pursue to overturn or lessen Griner’s sentence, including a higher court and the Supreme Court, but her lawyers have not yet decided if they will pursue those options.
“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 verdict.”
While Griner’s Russian legal team knew that the court could, in theory, overrule her sentence and send the case back to the court, they were more realistically hopeful at the prospect of the judges reducing the number of years in her sentence. The Russian courts set a 10-year maximum for the possession of cannabis in the country. Because Griner was first arrested at a Russian airport for trace amounts of cannabis in her luggage, which she says she had been prescribed by an American doctor for pain management, the sentencing was widely agreed to be excessive for the crime.
However, U.S. officials and Russian legal experts have consistently made clear that they believe Griner’s arrest had nothing to do with anything in her luggage, that she is being used as a political pawn in the ongoing crisis between Russia and Ukraine, and that the entirety of the Russian judicial process has been akin to a theatrical performance, as opposed to a transparent legal process driven by “justice.” Additionally, courts in Russia do not typically overturn verdicts, especially when it comes to sensitive matters of foreign policy and the direct involvement of Vladimir Putin. Putin is said to be sitting on a trade offer from the Biden administration, and likely will not act until the “judicial” process—or the appearance of it, resulting in Griner behind bars—has played out.
“Brittney is very mentally strong and has a champion’s character,” her lawyers said in a statement. “However, she of course has her highs and lows as she is under an increasing amount of stress and has been separated from her loved ones for over eight months.”
Though Russian media have not yet specified which penal colony Griner will be sent to, the colonies are known for torturing their prisoners and allowing them to be beaten by fellow inmates. According to the Times, Griner may be forced to work 16-hour days, watch Russian propaganda on repeat, and will likely be subjected to overcrowding and “harsh” conditions.