- NBA star was released from detention near Moscow on November 4.
- Griner faces 9 years in penal colony for drug possession
- Lawyers don’t know her location or destination
WASHINGTON, Nov. 9 (Reuters) – Russian authorities last week transferred American basketball star Brittney Griner from a detention center outside Moscow and she is now en route to a secret penal colony, her legal team and top Washington diplomat said Wednesday.
The two-time Olympic gold medalist was arrested on February 17 – a week before Russia invaded Ukraine – at an airport in Moscow where she was found to have vape cartridges containing cannabis oil, which is banned in Russia, in her luggage.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement Wednesday that Griner is being transferred to a “remote penal colony” and that the United States expects Russian authorities to allow their embassy officials access to Griner and other Americans detained in Russia.
“We strongly protest against the move of Brittney Griner to a remote penal colony and against the Russian government’s use of unlawful detention,” Blinken said in a separate message on Twitter.
The Women’s National Basketball Players Association said in a statement it was “crushed” by the move, calling it a “scary, seemingly never-ending nightmare,” adding “the lack of clarity and transparency in the process exacerbates the pain.”
Griner, 32, was sentenced to nine years in a penal colony on August 4 on charges of possession and smuggling of drugs. She pleaded guilty, but said she had made an “honest mistake” and had no intention of breaking the law.
She was transferred from a detention center near the Russian capital on Nov. 4 to be taken to a penal colony, but her current location and final destination are unknown, her legal team said in a statement.
In accordance with Russian procedures, they said her lawyers and the US embassy would have to be notified upon her arrival, but that it would take up to two weeks for that to happen.
Russia has not notified the United States that Griner was being moved, according to a senior State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Reuters has asked Russia’s Federal Prison Service for comment on where Griner is being taken and where she is now.
Transfers to penal colonies can be time consuming as groups of prisoners are collected and moved to different locations in the largest country in the world.
US President Joe Biden has instructed his administration to “overcome her Russian captors in order to improve her treatment and the conditions she may face in a penal colony.”
The Biden administration proposed a prisoner swap with Russia in late July to secure the release of Griner, as well as that of former US Marine Paul Whelan, but said Moscow had not yet responded positively to the offer.
Russia has declined to comment on the state of negotiations, saying such diplomacy should not be conducted in public.
The deterioration of ties between Russia and the West due to the war in Ukraine has complicated the talks.
“Despite a lack of good faith negotiations by the Russians, the US administration has continued to follow up on that offer and propose alternative options through all available channels,” White House spokeswoman Karinne Jean-Pierre said.
Discussions about the proposed exchange have “not been a static process,” the senior State Department official added.
Griner’s lawyers have not yet said whether they will appeal her conviction after a Russian court rejected an attempted appeal on Oct. 25.
Prisoners in Russian penal colonies face a harsh regime of tedious manual labor, poor hygiene and lack of adequate access to medical care.
Maria Alyokhina, who served nearly two years for her part in a 2012 punk protest in a Moscow cathedral by the feminist group Pussy Riot, told Reuters in an interview last week that she was one of 80 women who slept in one room with only three toilets and no hot water. She compared the conditions to a labor camp in the Gulag under the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
“Our primary concern remains the health and well-being of BG,” Griner’s agent, Lindsay Colas, said in a separate statement, referring to the player by her initials.
“As we work through this very difficult phase of not knowing exactly where BG is or how she is doing, we are asking for the support of the public to continue writing letters and expressing their love and concern for her,” Colas said.
Additional reporting by Mark Trevelyan, Filipp Lebedev, Doina Chiacu and Susan Heavey; Editing by Andrew Osborn, Paul Simao and Jonathan Oatis
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