A court near Moscow on Tuesday was hearing an appeal by Brittney Griner, the American basketball star who was sentenced to nine years in prison for trying to smuggle a small amount of hashish oil into Russia.
A ruling is expected later on Tuesday after the hearing, said Maria Blagovolina and Aleksandr Boikov, lawyers for Ms. Griner, who is jailed in Russia. The court can either leave the verdict as it is, reduce the jail term, or overrule it and send it back to the lower court, they said.
The appeal is being heard before a panel of three judges in a court in Krasnogorsk, a town outside Moscow. If the appeals court does not overrule the verdict, it will come into force and Ms. Griner will be sent to a penal colony.
On the eve of the hearing, which began on Tuesday afternoon, Ms. Griner’s lawyers said in a statement that she did not expect “any miracles to happen.”
The fate of Ms. Griner — who was arrested on drug charges in a Moscow airport days before Russia invaded Ukraine — has been intertwined with a confrontational tug of war between Moscow and Washington.
The State of the War
- Fears of Escalation: Western officials said Moscow was seeking to create a pretext for escalating the war by making false claims that Kyiv was preparing to detonate a dirty bomb on its own territory.
- Anti-Drone Warfare: Since Russia began terrorizing Ukrainian cities in recent weeks with Iranian-made drones, Ukraine has turned its focus to an intense counter-drone strategy. The hastily assembled effort has been surprisingly successful.
- A Devastated Land: Ukrainians who are returning to liberated towns are encountering destruction on a staggering scale, vital services cut and the prospect of a lethal winter ahead.
- A New Front?: Russia is massing thousands of troops in its western neighbor Belarus, raising fears that Moscow might plan to open another front in the war. But officials in Kyiv and Washington are casting doubt on whether the buildup represents a serious threat.
Ms. Griner — who has been “very nervous” ahead of the hearing, according to her lawyers — is not appearing in court and is participating in the proceedings via a video link from the detention center she has been held in since her arrest in February.
“Brittney is a very strong person and has a champion’s character,” the lawyers said in their statement. “She of course has her highs and lows as she is severely stressed being separated from her loved ones for over eight months.”
Ms. Griner was arrested on Feb. 17 in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, where she had arrived from the United States. She was en route to Yekaterinburg, a Russian city near the Ural Mountains, where she played for a women’s basketball team. Customs officials in Moscow said they had found two vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage and detained her.
Ms. Griner admitted her guilt in court but insisted that she had no intention to break the law, saying that the small amount of hashish oil appeared in her luggage because of negligence. She told the court that she had made “an honest mistake.”
Since she was sentenced in August, her lawyers have argued that the nine-year prison term — near the 10-year maximum for such a conviction — was too harsh for a first-time offense and was politically motivated.
American officials have accused Russia of using Ms. Griner and other Americans in Russian custody as bargaining chips. In July, the Biden administration offered a prisoner swap involving Ms. Griner, but Russian officials said it was premature to discuss a deal while her case was underway.
President Biden has said that there had been no movement with the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, over Ms. Griner’s case. He also told CNN that he would only talk to Mr. Putin at a Group of 20 meeting to be held in Bali, Indonesia, next month if it was to discuss her situation.
Bill Richardson, the former New Mexico governor and ambassador to the United Nations who has been unofficially negotiating with Russian officials as a private citizen, said in October that he was “cautiously optimistic” that Ms. Griner can be exchanged together with Paul Whelan, who has been serving time in a Russian prison, before the end of the year.
Ms. Griner’s lawyers said that she was allowed to walk outside once a day in a small courtyard at her detention center. She spends the rest of her time in a small cell with two cellmates, sitting and sleeping on a specially elongated bed to accommodate her 6-foot-9 frame.