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Moscow appeals court upholds Brittney Griner's 9-year sentence

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

It's not the outcome that Brittney Griner or her family and supporters were hoping for today in Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Russian).

SUMMERS: An appeals court upheld Griner's nine-year sentence on drug smuggling charges. The decision means she will now begin serving out her term in a prison colony. Yet it also may kickstart negotiations aimed at gaining her freedom. NPR's Charles Maynes has been following this case from the beginning, and he's on the line now from Moscow. Hi there.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi there.

SUMMERS: So, Charles, fill us in if you can. What was Brittney Griner hoping to achieve today, and what was her legal strategy?

MAYNES: Well, I'm sure Brittney Griner would have loved all charges dropped. But she went into today saying she expected no miracles but did hope for a lesser sentence. Now, Griner wasn't actually at the courthouse. She was watching the proceedings remotely by video feed from a detention center outside Moscow, using a court-appointed translator, which can be kind of a glitchy process. But when Griner did have a chance to speak, she pointed to the support that she had from Russian teammates and fans in Yekaterinburg, the town she plays in in the Russian league. She noted this episode was an honest mistake and that the substance, this hash oil, was medicinal. And there wasn't even much of it - less than a gram. And she said, look. Even then, I accepted responsibility and admitted my guilt. And yet none of this mattered in the first trial. She got close to the maximum sentence. Let's listen.

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BRITTNEY GRINER: I really hope that the court will adjust this sentence because it's been very, very stressful and very traumatic to my mental psyche being away from my family and not being able to communicate.

MAYNES: And, of course, the appeals panel of judges rejected all those arguments except for shaving off a bit of time served. The nine-year sentence remains in force.

SUMMERS: And, Charles, there are a lot of people calling for Griner's release. President Joe Biden says his administration is not letting up on efforts to that end. How have they reacted there in Moscow and, to the degree that you're aware, in the United States?

MAYNES: You know, the WNBA Players Association issued a statement that said this was proof of the political nature of the case. It said - they said it showed that Griner was very clearly a hostage and a political pawn. And U.S. officials basically agree with them on that point. The U.S. embassy's deputy chief of mission, Elizabeth Rood, was just one of a host of American officials who denounced the ruling. Here she is talking to reporters outside the courthouse in Moscow.

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ELIZABETH ROOD: Nothing in the previous sentence, nothing in the result of today's appeal changes the fact that the United States government considers Miss Griner to be wrongfully detained.

SUMMERS: It's been nine months since Griner was first detained, so her case has really unfolded against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine and a collapse in U.S.-Russian relations. And yet we hear that the White House wants a prisoner exchange. Charles, does that seem feasible?

MAYNES: You know, U.S. officials say talks have been going on behind the scenes, which is how the Russian government wants it. But there's always been a snag. The White House says it's put out a substantial offer in exchange for Griner and another jailed American, a former Marine named Paul Whelan. That's widely reported to involve a suggested trade for a convicted Russian arms dealer, a man named Viktor Bout. Meanwhile, the Kremlin has insisted that Griner's trial had to come to a close before that could happen. And today's ruling would seem to satisfy that condition. So for Brittney Griner, the hope here is that, yes, today's ruling means one door has closed, but just maybe another one opens.

SUMMERS: That's NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Thank you.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Nishant Dahiya
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.