A Russian court has upheld a nine-year prison sentence against US basketball player Brittney Griner, prompting renewed calls from the United States for her release.
A Moscow-area court on Tuesday rejected an appeal by Griner, who was found guilty and sentenced in August on drug charges, in what the White House called “another sham judicial proceeding”.
Griner, a Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) star and two-time Olympic gold medallist, was arrested at a Moscow airport in February with vape cartridges containing cannabis oil, which is illegal in Russia.
“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,” US national security adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement.
“President Biden has been very clear that Brittney should be released immediately.”
Griner’s arrest earlier this year came days before Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and her case has moved through the Russian court system amid frayed relations between Moscow and Washington over the war.
She is one of the two US citizens that Washington has said are unjustifiably imprisoned in Russia; Paul Whelan, a US Marine veteran, was sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2020 on espionage charges.
On Tuesday, Griner’s lawyers argued in court that the nine-year jail sentence she received was excessive.
“The punishment imposed … does not correspond to the gravity of the crime,” Maria Blagovolina said during Griner’s appeal hearing. “Nine years in prison is a sentence that contradicts judicial practice.”
In previous proceedings, Griner said she did not intend to bring the vape cartridges into Russia, saying that it was an “honest mistake” that they ended up in her bags.
Since Griner’s arrest, relatives, teammates and supporters have been calling on the US government to put its full weight behind the case to secure her release.
Last month, US President Joe Biden met the families of Griner and Whelan to update them on his administration’s efforts.
Sullivan said on Tuesday that the US “has continued to engage with Russia through every available channel” to bring home the two jailed Americans.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in July that Washington made a “substantial proposal” to Moscow to free Griner and Whelan.
Several US media outlets reported around that time that the Biden administration offered a prisoner exchange involving a Russian arms dealer jailed in the US.
Earlier this month, former US diplomat Bill Richardson, who travelled to Moscow in September and met senior Russian officials, told CNN that Griner and Whelan may be released by the end of the year.
“I am cautiously optimistic on the Griner [and] Whelan negotiations,” said Richardson, who works privately to secure the release of US citizens detained abroad.
Despite the deteriorating ties between Washington and Moscow, Russia in April freed Trevor Reed, a former US marine. In exchange, the US released Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was serving a 20-year prison sentence in the US over drug charges.