(Headline USA) President Joe Biden moved a possible step closer to freeing a notorious arms dealer nicknamed the “merchant of death” in exchange for the release of Russian-jailed WNBA lesbian baller Brittney Griner.
A Russian court on Tuesday rejected an appeal by U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner of her nine-year prison sentence for drug possession, a step that could move her closer to a possible high-stakes prisoner swap between Moscow and Washington.
The eight-time all-star center with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist was convicted Aug. 4 after police said they found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport.
Griner, 32, was not at the Moscow Regional Court hearing but appeared via video link from a penal colony outside the capital where she is held.
At her trial, Griner admitted to having the canisters in her luggage but testified she packed them inadvertently in her haste to make her flight and had no criminal intent. Her defense team presented written statements saying she had been prescribed cannabis to treat chronic pain.
Griner’s arrest in February came at a time of heightened tensions between Moscow and Washington, just days before Russia sent troops into Ukraine. At the time, Griner was returning to play for a Russian team during the WNBA’s offseason.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the decision “another failure of justice, compounding the injustice of her detention,” adding that “securing her release is our priority.”
President Joe Biden told reporters that his administration is in “constant contract” with Russian authorities on Griner and other Americans who are detained there. While there has not been progress on bringing her back to the U.S., Biden said, “We’re not stopping.”
Before her conviction, the U.S. State Department declared Griner to be “wrongfully detained” — a charge that Russia has sharply rejected.
U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said in a statement that Biden “is willing to go to extraordinary lengths and make tough decisions to bring Americans home.”
Because of the growing pressure on the Biden administration to do more to bring Griner home, Blinken took the unusual step of revealing in July that Washington had made a “substantial proposal” to get Griner home, along with Paul Whelan, an American serving a 16-year sentence in Russia for espionage.
Blinken didn’t elaborate, but The Associated Press and other news organizations have reported that Washington has offered to exchange Griner and Whelan for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who is serving a 25-year sentence in the U.S. and once earned the nickname the “merchant of death.”
The White House said it has not yet received a productive response from Russia to the offer.
Russian diplomats have refused to comment on the U.S. proposal and urged Washington to discuss the matter in confidential talks, avoiding public statements. But some Russian officials have said a deal is more likely once appeals have been exhausted.
WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said the decision “while unfortunate, was not unexpected. … It is time to bring this case to an end and bring BG home.” The WNBA Players Association said the ruling was “further verification that BG is not just wrongfully detained -– she is very clearly a hostage.”
Adapted from reporting by the Associated Press