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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Brittney Griner appeals conviction amid talk of prisoner swap

Brittney Griner, the American basketball star, leaving the courtroom in Khimki outside Moscow this month. She was found guilty of bringing illegal narcotics into the country.

By Ivan Nechepurenko

The defense team for Brittney Griner, the American basketball star sentenced to prison in Russia on drug smuggling charges, said Monday that it had appealed the verdict as Russian diplomats began to speak more openly about a potential prisoner exchange with the United States.

Maria Blagovolina, a partner at the law firm that has represented Griner, confirmed the appeal of the verdict, which was reached this month by the Khimki City Court outside Moscow. The grounds of the appeal were not immediately clear.

Griner’s legal team has said that the appeal, which was expected, would most likely take up to three months to be adjudicated. Russian officials have said that all legal avenues must be exhausted before a potential exchange can be discussed.

But over the weekend, Alexander Darchiev, a high-ranking Russian diplomat, said political negotiations with the United States were already underway, including discussion of Russians held by the United States whose release Moscow seeks in order to secure Griner’s freedom.

“The discussion of the quite sensitive topic of prisoner exchange of Russian and American citizens has been ongoing along the channels set out by the two presidents,” Darchiev, director of the North American department at the Russian Foreign Ministry, told TASS, a state news agency.

One Russian whose release Moscow is seeking, Darchiev confirmed, is Viktor Bout, an imprisoned Russian arms dealer. Darchiev said that Griner as well as Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine convicted by a court in Moscow of espionage charges, have been discussed as potential candidates for an exchange.

The Biden administration has offered to free Bout in exchange for Griner and Whelan, according to people familiar with the proposal. Griner’s attorneys said earlier they could withdraw the appeal in case it would impede the exchange process.

The case of Griner, who was detained at a Russian airport in February and accused of carrying vape cartridges with hashish oil in her luggage, has become entangled in the deteriorating relations between Russia and the United States after Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. This month, a Russian judge sentenced Griner to nine years in a penal colony. U.S. officials have said she was “wrongfully detained” and that her trial was politically motivated.

A day after the verdict, the top diplomats of the United States and Russia said their governments were ready to negotiate the release of both the American basketball star and Whelan. The diplomats, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov of Russia, said in separate news conferences that the negotiations would be conducted through a channel established by their two presidents.

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