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Now that WNBA star Brittney Griner has a verdict in her drug smuggling trial, with a Russian court sentencing her Thursday to nine years in prison, her lawyers are looking ahead to an appeal, and a possible prisoner exchange.
"We are very disappointed and very upset by this verdict," Maria Blagovolina, a partner at Rybalkin Gortsunyan Dyakin and Partners, tells PEOPLE just hours after the decision. "Sentences for this article of the criminal court, they usually not so severe. Usually, it's like five and a half or six years. So nine years, it's pretty unusual, and it contradicts the existing court practice in Russia."
"That's why we are really disappointed and very much surprised by this decision by the court," she adds.
Blagovolina, along with another member of Griner's legal team, Alexander Boykov of the Moscow Legal Center, say they intend to appeal the sentence, and must do so within 10 days. While they don't know if it will make a difference, Blagovolina says they have to try.
"We need to use every legal opportunity that we have, and appeal is one of these opportunities," she says.
YURI KOCHETKOV/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock Brittney Griner
The appeal would be in front of a different judge and a different court, and Blagovolina and Boykov say they need to review the full verdict before they work on their strategy.
The process would also take a number of months to begin, Boykov says. "It's not very fast."
A Potential Exchange
The verdict also now places added attention on the potential prisoner exchange the U.S. government recently offered to Russia. Last Wednesday, an official in the Biden administration confirmed to PEOPLE that the Biden administration had "made a substantial proposal to bring Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan [another American imprisoned in Russia] home weeks ago."
According to CNN, the U.S. offered to trade 31-year-old Griner and Whelan for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. The outlet said Russian officials also requested that the U.S. include convicted murderer and former Russian spy Vadim Krasikov in the package.
If Russia and the U.S. agree to an exchange, Griner's legal team would drop the appeal process "immediately," Boykov says, and the WNBA star would "proceed to depart."
EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA/POOL/AFP via Getty Brittney Griner shakes hands with her lawyer Alexander Boykov
When Griner heard about the potential exchange, she was "quite happy to know that she's not been forgotten and that there are some possible developments," Blagovolina says. "But she's quite realistic about what's going on."
A U.S. official told PEOPLE Thursday that the Biden Administration is "still waiting" on Russia to respond to the offer.
President Joe Biden called on Russia to "bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible" in a statement released shortly after the sentencing was read.
"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," Biden said in the statement.
He continued: "It's unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates."