US basketball player Brittney Griner appeals Russian conviction

Washington has said Griner, who was sentenced to nine years in prison for drug possession, has been wrongfully detained.

Brittney Griner
Griner was convicted of narcotics possession and trafficking [File: Evgenia Novozhenina/AP Photo]

US basketball player Brittney Griner’s legal defence team has appealed her conviction by a Russian court for narcotics possession and trafficking – for which she was sentenced to nine years in prison.

Griner’s conviction and sentencing in early August were condemned by Washington, with President Joe Biden calling it “unacceptable” and pledging to bring Griner and Paul Whelan, who is also imprisoned in Russia, home.

The United States has said it will pursue a prisoner swap including the athlete and Viktor Bout, a Russian imprisoned in the US who was once a prolific arms dealer.

The appeal was first reported by Russian media. Griner’s lawyer confirmed to Reuters news agency on Monday the appeal had been filed.

Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medallist and Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) star, was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on February 17 after authorities found cannabis-infused vape cartridges in her luggage.

She has said bringing the cartridges into the country, where she played for a Russian club team during the US off season, was an “honest mistake”.

The arrest came at a time of heightened tensions between Washington and Moscow, which escalated further following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine five days after the arrest.

Last month, the US State Department designated Griner as “wrongfully detained”. Moscow has denied the arrest was political.

Speaking shortly before the judge’s ruling, Griner said: “I know everybody keeps talking about political pawn and politics, but I hope that is far from this courtroom.”

US athletes, activists and legislators have rallied behind Griner, while heaping pressure on the Biden administration to do more to secure her freedom.

“It has been 178 days since our friend, Brittney Griner, has been wrongfully detained in Russia,” wrote Seattle Storm power forward Breanna Stewart on Twitter on Sunday, tagging Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.

“It is time for her to come home.”

It is common for US professional women’s basketball players, who are paid only a fraction of male players’ salaries, to join lucrative leagues abroad in the off season.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies