By Zahra Ullah, CNN
Brittney Griner’s legal team has filed an appeal against a Russian court’s verdict sentencing the WNBA star to nine years in prison for smuggling drugs into Russia, Griner’s lawyer told CNN on Monday, days after the Russian government confirmed for the first time discussions about a potential prisoner swap involving a convicted Russian arms dealer.
The US State Department maintains Griner is wrongfully detained, and her case has raised concerns she is being used as a political pawn in Russia’s war against Ukraine. US officials have offered a potential prisoner swap to try to bring her home safely.
Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout’s name has been mentioned in bilateral talks between Moscow and Washington over a prisoner swap involving Griner and American Paul Whelan, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s North American Department director, Alexander Darchiev, told Russian state media TASS on Saturday.
“This quite sensitive issue of the swap of convicted Russian and US citizens is being discussed through the channels defined by our Presidents. These individuals are, indeed, being discussed. The Russian side has long been seeking the release of Viktor Bout. The details should be left to professionals, proceeding from the ‘do not harm’ principle,” Darchiev said in response to a request for comment on US news reports that US officials had sent a proposal to Moscow on swapping Bout for Griner and Whelan, TASS reported.
The US government “continues to urge Russia to release wrongful detainees Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan,” a US State Department spokesperson said Monday. “As Secretary (of State Antony) Blinken said, ‘There was a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release.'”
“We will not go into detail of what we proposed to the Russians,” the spokesperson added.
Whelan has been held by Russia for alleged espionage since 2018. There’s no set timetable for Griner’s appeal, which normally would take one to two months or longer. Griner’s attorney, Maria Blagovolina, a partner at Rybalkin Gortsunyan Dyakin and Partners, told CNN of the appeal.
The verdict appeal and potential prisoner swap conversations operate independently, said Griner attorney Alexander Boykov of Moscow Legal Center.
“It should not affect them. This is a part of legal process. Prisoner talks come through diplomatic channels. Since the appeal could be withdrawn any time before the actual hearing, there’s no reason for Russian government to wait,” he said.
During months of internal discussions among US agencies, the Justice Department opposed trading Bout, people briefed on the matter say. However, Justice officials eventually accepted that a Bout trade would have the support of top officials at the State Department and White House, including President Joe Biden, sources say.
The Russian government has frequently floated Bout as the subject of a potential trade for a number of Americans. Bout’s attorney has said he is “confident” the exchange will happen.
Griner, 31, was detained in February for carrying vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage. The two-time US Olympic basketball gold medalist pleaded guilty to drug charges and said she accidentally packed the drugs while in a hurry.
The nine-year sentence, along with a fine of about $16,400, was issued August 4 by Khimki city court Judge Anna Sotnikova, who said the court took into account Griner’s partial admission of guilt, remorse for the deed, state of health and charitable activities.
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CNN’s Kylie Atwood, Frederik Pleitgen, Evan Perez, Jennifer Hansler and Chandelis Duster contributed to this report.