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Brittney Griner appeals nine-year sentence, talks of prisoner swap continue

US basketball player Brittney Griner stands in a defendants' cage before a court hearing during her trial on charges of drug smuggling, in Khimki, outside Moscow.
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MOSCOW (AP) — Lawyers for American basketball star Brittney Griner have filed an appeal of her nine-year Russian prison sentence for drug possession, Russian news agencies reported Monday, amid talks between the U.S. and Russia that could lead to a high-profile prisoner swap.

Griner, an eight-time all-star center with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and 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 admitted that she had the canisters in her luggage, but said she had inadvertently packed them in haste and that she had no criminal intent. Her defense team presented written statements that she had been prescribed cannabis to treat pain.

Her February arrest came at a time of heightened tensions between Moscow and Washington, just days before Russia sent troops into Ukraine. At the time, Griner, recognized as one of the greatest players in WNBA history, was returning to Russia, where she plays during the U.S. league’s offseason.

Lawyer Maria Blagovolina was quoted by Russian news agencies on Monday as saying the appeal was filed, as was expected, but the grounds for it weren’t immediately clear.

The nine-year sentence was close to the maximum of 10 years, and Blagovolina and co-counsel Alexander Boykov said after the conviction that the punishment was excessive. They said that in similar cases defendants have received an average sentence of about five years, with about a third of them granted parole.

Before her conviction, the U.S. State Department declared Griner to be “wrongfully detained” — a charge that Russia has sharply rejected.

Reflecting the growing pressure on the Biden administration to do more to bring Griner home, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken took the unusual step of revealing publicly 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 free 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.”

On Sunday, a senior Russian diplomat said talks about an exchange have been conducted.

“This quite sensitive issue of the swap of convicted Russian and U.S. citizens is being discussed through the channels defined by our presidents,” Alexander Darchiev, head of the Foreign Ministry’s North America department, told state news agency Tass. “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.”

Diana Taurasi to miss rest of 2022 WNBA season with quad strain

Diana Taurasi #3 of the Phoenix Mercury shoots a free throw during the game against the Indiana Fever.
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The Phoenix Mercury announced on Monday that Diana Taurasi will miss the remainder of the 2022 WNBA season due to a quad strain.

Taurasi, 40, didn’t play in the Mercury’s last two games after appearing in every other game this season.

To replace Taurasi, the Mercury signed Yvonne “Vonnie” Turner to a hardship contract. Turner previously played three seasons with the franchise (2017-2019). Earlier this season, she signed hardship contracts with both the Minnesota Lynx (four games) and Atlanta Dream (two games).

2022 WNBA Playoffs: Qualified teams, playoff format, game schedule and more

The Phoenix Mercury (14-19) are currently eighth in the WNBA standings and are one of six teams in contention for three remaining playoff berths. The Mercury have three regular season games left, including a pivotal contest against the No. 10 Minnesota Lynx on Wednesday.

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Brittney Griner verdict: Basketball world, politicians react to sentencing

US basketball player Brittney Griner (C) is escorted by police before a hearing during her trial on charges of drug smuggling, in Khimki, outside Moscow.
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WNBA All-Star Brittney Griner was convicted and sentenced to nine years in prison for drug possession and smuggling Thursday. Here are reactions from around the basketball and political realms:

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“Today, American citizen Brittney Griner received a prison sentence that is one more reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney. It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates. My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible.” — President Joe Biden said.

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“Today’s verdict and sentencing is unjustified and unfortunate, but not unexpected and Brittney Griner remains wrongly detained. The WNBA and NBA’s commitment to her safe return has not wavered and it is our hope that we are near the end of this process of finally bringing BG home to the United States.” — WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a joint statement.

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“The wrongful detainment and unjust sentencing of Brittney Griner are brazen and unacceptable violations of the rule of law by Putin. Russia must release her immediately.” — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement.

RELATED: Brittney Griner sentenced to nine years in prison by Russian judge

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“Today’s sentencing of Brittney Griner was severe by Russian legal standards and goes to prove what we have known all along, that Brittney is being used as a political pawn. We appreciate and continue to support the efforts of (at)POTUS and (at)SecBlinken to get a deal done swiftly to bring Brittney, Paul and all Americans home. Bringing Brittney and Paul home is the sole objective, and as such, we should use all available tools. We must remain focused and unified. This is a time for compassion and a shared understanding that getting a deal done to bring Americans home will be hard, but it is urgent and it is the right thing to do.” — Brittney Griner’s longtime agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, tweeted.

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“Thinking of BG and how much light she relentlessly brought to everyone around her. Even after sentencing is complete I hope (at)POTUS & (at)WhiteHouse will continue to do everything in their power to bring Brittney Griner & all other Americans detained abroad home.” — Phoenix Mercury teammate Brianna Turner tweeted.

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“While we knew it was never the legal process that was going to bring our friend home, today’s verdict is a sobering milestone in the 168-day nightmare being endured by our sister, BG. We remain heartbroken for her, as we have every day for nearly six months. We remain grateful to and confident in the public servants working every day to return her to her family and us. We remain faithful the Administration will do what it takes to end her wrongful detention. We are inspired every day by BG’s strength and we are steadfastly committed to keeping her top-of-mind publicly until she is safely back on American soil. We will not allow her to be forgotten. We are BG.” — the Phoenix Mercury said in a statement.

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“Today’s verdict and sentence, while inevitable, is disappointing. The unjust decision today is what it is, unjust. It is a terrible blow. Whatever conversations Secretary Blinken and his Russian counterpart need to have, we trust that they are having them with all deliberate speed. Because it’s time. It’s just time.” — WNBA Players Association said in a statement.

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