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White House Blasts Brittney Griner’s Appeal Hearing as a ‘Sham’

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 10/25/2022 Jennifer Jacobs and Justin Sink
US basketball player Brittney Griner, who was sentenced to nine years in a Russian penal colony in August for drug smuggling, is seen on a video camera viewer as she attends a court hearing to consider an appeal against her sentence via a video link from a remand prison, at the Moscow regional court on October 25, 2022. © Photographer: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images US basketball player Brittney Griner, who was sentenced to nine years in a Russian penal colony in August for drug smuggling, is seen on a video camera viewer as she attends a court hearing to consider an appeal against her sentence via a video link from a remand prison, at the Moscow regional court on October 25, 2022.

(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden said US efforts to secure the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner are ongoing but have not swayed the Kremlin, hours after a Russian court rejected her appeal of a nine-year drug smuggling sentence.

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“We are in constant contact with Russian authorities to get Brittney and others out, and so far we’re not meeting with much positive response,” Biden told reporters Tuesday at the White House. “But we’re not stopping.”

Read more: Russian Court Rejects Appeal of Jailed US Basketball Star Griner

Earlier in the day, the White House called the court’s decision a “sham” and again demanded her release. The ruling means Griner will leave a pre-trial detention facility near Moscow and be sent to serve her term in a penal colony elsewhere 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,” White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement. “President Biden has been very clear that Brittney should be released immediately.”

State Department spokesman Ned Price said the US charge d’affairs in Moscow, Elizabeth Rood, sought permission to speak with Griner, who appeared for the hearing Tuesday via video link.

“Our charge was not able, ultimately, to speak to Brittney Griner,” Price said. “The Russian authorities would not permit that.”

The US has accused Russia of dragging its feet on a prisoner exchange. In August, President Joe Biden offered to exchange Griner and another detained American, Paul Whelan, for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer known as the “merchant of death,” and a second Russian also held in a US prison, according to a person with knowledge of the matter.

Sullivan on Tuesday said Biden is “willing to go to extraordinary lengths and make tough decisions to bring Americans home.”

Griner, a Phoenix Mercury basketball star who played in Russia during the off-season, was arrested at a Moscow airport in February after customs officials said they found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage. She pleaded guilty to drug possession and smuggling.

“Today’s disappointing, yet unsurprising, appeal outcome further validates the fact that she is being held hostage and is being used as a political pawn,” Griner’s agent, Lindsay Colas, said in a statement. “Brittney Griner is being held by Russia simply because she is an American.”

Whelan was sentenced to 16 years in jail in Russia in 2020 on spying charges that he denies. He was arrested in December 2018 while attending a wedding in Moscow after receiving a flash drive with “state secrets” that he said he thought contained holiday pictures. 

In April, despite a rupture in ties following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, authorities in Moscow and Washington exchanged jailed former US Marine Trevor Reed for Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko in a carefully orchestrated swap at a Turkish airfield. 

Yaroshenko was serving a 20-year sentence in the US imposed in 2011 for conspiracy to smuggle cocaine. Reed was serving nine years in Russia after being convicted in 2020 of assaulting two police officers.

--With assistance from Ben Harvey and Nick Wadhams.

(Adds Griner agent statement in 10th paragraph)

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