Brittney Griner moved to penal colony in Russia’s Mordovia region

WNBA player, whose whereabouts had been publicly unknown, is in a penal colony 500km southeast of Moscow, lawyers confirm.

Griner, from shoulders up, behind white bars
A Russian court last month upheld Griner's nine-year prison sentence [File: Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool via AP Photo]

United States basketball player Brittney Griner has been moved to a penal colony in Russia’s Mordovia region to serve a nine-year prison sentence for drug possession, her lawyers confirmed, as Washington continues to push for her release.

Griner’s lawyers said in a statement on Thursday that she was taken to Female Penal Colony IK-2 in the town of Yavas, approximately 500km (300 miles) southeast of Moscow.

The Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) star was relocated from a detention centre near the Russian capital on November 4. While her lawyers said at that time that she had been moved to a penal colony, her exact whereabouts had been unknown to the public.

“We can confirm that Brittney began serving her sentence at IK-2 in Mordovia. We visited her early this week,” lawyers Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boikov said in Thursday’s statement.

“Brittney is doing as well as could be expected and trying to stay strong as she adapts to a new environment.”

The US State Department said on Wednesday the embassy in Moscow has not been able to communicate with Griner since the transfer.

“We, through our lawyers, are aware of her location and are in frequent contact with Ms Griner’s legal team, but formally, the Russian Federation has still failed to provide any official notification for such a move of a US citizen, which we strongly protest,” Deputy Spokesperson Vedant Patel told reporters.

“Our embassy and our mission in Moscow has continued to press for more information about her transfer and her current location, and those requests continue to be ongoing.”

Russian penal colonies are known for their harsh conditions, where prisoners are placed in barracks, not individual cells, and forced to perform daily work.

Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medallist, is one of two US citizens Washington says are unjustifiably imprisoned in Russia. Paul Whelan, a US Marine veteran, was sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2020 on espionage charges.

Griner’s arrest earlier this year came days before Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine and her case has moved through the Russian court system amid frayed relations between Moscow and Washington over the war.

Russian authorities said they found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage as she was coming into the country to play for a Russian team during the WNBA’s off-season.

She was sentenced to nine years in prison in August and, last month, a Russian court upheld that sentence, which the basketball star’s defence lawyers described as excessive.

In previous proceedings, Griner said she did not intend to bring the vape cartridges into Russia and that it was an “honest mistake” they ended up in her bags.

Since Griner’s arrest, relatives, teammates and supporters have been calling on the US government to put its full weight behind the case to secure her release.

In September, US President Joe Biden met the Griner and Whelan families to update them on his administration’s efforts.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in July that Washington made a “substantial proposal” to Moscow to free the pair. Several US media outlets reported around that time that the Biden administration had offered a prisoner exchange involving a Russian arms dealer jailed in the US.

US officials have said they continue to engage with their Russian counterparts to secure the two Americans’ release.

Despite the deteriorating ties between Washington and Moscow, Russia in April freed Trevor Reed, a former US Marine. In exchange, the US released Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko who was serving a 20-year prison sentence in the US over drug charges.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies