US’ Women’s National Basketball Association (NBA) basketball player Brittney Griner, who was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport and later charged with illegal possession of cannabis, stands inside a defendants’ cage before a court hearing in Khimki outside Moscow, on August 4, 2022.
Evgenia Novozhenina | AFP | Getty Images
WASHINGTON — A Russian court will hear WNBA star Brittney Griner’s appeal on Tuesday after the American athlete was convicted on drug charges earlier this year.
Griner’s lawyers told NBC News before the hearing that the two-time Olympic gold medalist is “quite pessimistic” that the judge will overrule the court’s original verdict.
“She hopes there will be some reduction in her sentence,” Maria Blagovolina, Griner’s lawyer, told Andrea Mitchell of NBC News, adding the 32-year-old athlete will appear in court via video conference.
Griner, who plays professional basketball in Russia during the WNBA offseason, was arrested in February after Russian authorities found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport.
Her lawyers said Griner only uses cannabis medically and unintentionally packed the cannabis canisters in her suitcase because the professional athlete was in a hurry.
Under Russian law, the charge carried a penalty of up to 10 years in prison. In August, Griner was found guilty and sentenced to nine years. She was also ordered to pay 1 million rubles, approximately $16,301.
The court’s decision came as the Biden administration scrambled to secure her release.
A week before the verdict, the Biden administration confirmed it made an offer to the Russian government for the release of Griner and the former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan.
US WNBA basketball superstar Brittney Griner stands inside a defendants’ cage before a hearing at the Khimki Court, outside Moscow on July 26, 2022.
Alexander Zemlianichenko | AFP | Getty Images
Days before she pleaded guilty last month, Griner wrote a letter to President Joe Biden asking for his direct help with her case.
“I sit here in a Russian prison, alone with my thoughts and without the protection of my wife, family, friends, Olympic jersey, or any accomplishments, I’m terrified I might be here forever,” the professional athlete wrote in a July 5 letter.
“I realize you are dealing with so much, but please don’t forget about me and … other American detainees. Please do all you can to bring us home,” Griner wrote.
After receiving the letter, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris called the WNBA star’s wife, Cherelle Griner. Biden also wrote a response to Griner that U.S. diplomats hand-delivered in Moscow.
Biden reassured her wife that he is working to secure Griner’s release as soon as possible, according to a White House readout of the call. He also told Cherelle Griner that he is working to release Whelan, who is serving a 16-year sentence in Russia.
Whelan was arrested in 2018 on charges of acting as a spy for the United States. At the time he was arrested, Whelan was visiting Russia to attend a wedding, according to his brother, David Whelan.
Griner’s arrest and subsequent detention came as the West issued repeated warnings to Russian President Vladimir Putin to draw down the hundreds of thousands of troops staged along Ukraine’s border. In the wake of Russia’s full-scale invasion of its ex-Soviet neighbor, the U.S. and its allies unleashed a slew of punishing sanctions on Moscow and built up a multibillion-dollar war chest for Kyiv.
Two months into the war, Russia agreed to release former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed in a prisoner exchange.
Reed was accused of assaulting a Russian police officer and detained by authorities there in 2019. He was later sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison. Reed and his family have maintained his innocence, and the U.S. government described him as unjustly imprisoned.
For Reed’s release, Biden agreed to free Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot serving a 20-year federal prison sentence for conspiracy to smuggle cocaine into the U.S.