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Brittney Griner’s verdict and sentence did not change anything regarding the WNBA superstar’s status as being “wrongfully detained,” U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said Monday.
Price was asked about Griner and the potential of a prisoner swap with Russia, which may involve Viktor Bout and another American held in Russia, Paul Whelan.
“No element of this trial changes our judgment that Brittney Griner is being wrongfully detained and should be released immediately,” Price said. “That is why we’ve put forward a number of weeks ago what we consider to be a serious, substantial proposal and an effort to seek her release, to seek the release of Paul Whelan as well.
“We are in communication with the Russians on this matter, and we encourage them to pursue this constructively.”
Earlier Monday, lawyers for Griner appealed the nine-year sentence handed down to the Phoenix Mercury center for drug possession. She was convicted Aug. 4 after police said they found vape cartridges containing oils derived from cannabis in her luggage at a Moscow airport.
The 31-year-old was arrested in February in Russia. She was returning to her Russian basketball team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, after there was a pause in the season for international play. She has been held in the country ever since.
Griner apologized in court earlier this month.
“I want to apologize to my teammates, my club, my fans and the city of (Yekaterinburg) for my mistake that I made and the embarrassment that I brought on them,” she said. “I want to also apologize to my parents, my siblings, the Phoenix Mercury organization back at home, the amazing women of the WNBA, and my amazing spouse back at home.”
Griner contended she made “an honest mistake” when she brought vape cartridges through the airport, adding “I hope in your ruling it does not end my life.”
Russian media has speculated the trade could be for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer known as the “Merchant of Death,” who is serving a 25-year sentence in the U.S. after being convicted of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organization.
A senior Russian diplomat said Sunday talks about a prisoner 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 Russia’s TASS agency. “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.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.