The American basketball star Brittney Griner was transferred to a Russian penal colony this week, a move that has left her family and legal team in the dark over her status and whereabouts.
The New York Times reported that Griner’s lawyers “said in a statement [on Wednesday] that her destination was unknown and that they expected to be notified through official mail, along with the U.S. Embassy, once she has arrived, a process that can take up to two weeks.”
Griner, 32, has been detained in Russia since February, when she was arrested at a Moscow airport on drug charges. Security officials found cannabis oil in her luggage, which Griner later said was an accident.
Her transfer to a Russian penal colony marks another dark development for Griner, a star for the Phoenix Mercury of the WNBA and widely regarded as one of the greatest women’s basketball players ever.
According to the Times, penal colonies “are notorious for abusive treatment of inmates, overcrowding and harsh conditions.”
“Some prisoners are tortured, or beaten by fellow inmates. Some have to work 16-hour days. A few are forced to watch Russian propaganda on repeat,” the Times reported. “This is the world of the Russian penal colony, into which Brittney Griner is about to be inducted for a nine-year term after her sentencing on drug smuggling charges was upheld last month.”
The transfer also makes the already trying circumstances even more difficult for Griner’s friends and family back home.
“Prisoners are typically not allowed to communicate with the outside world for a week or two while they are moved, and lawyers and family members do not know where the inmates are going — learning which penal colony the sentence will be served in only once the prisoner arrives,” the Times said.
Griner’s ongoing detention, coming at a time of heightened tensions between the United States and Russia, has turned into a diplomatic standoff.
The U.S. has sought a prisoner swap with Russia, which would secure the release of Griner and Paul Whelan, an American citizen who has been detained in Russia on espionage charges since 2018.
In exchange, the U.S. would release Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer currently serving a 25-year prison sentence in the United States.
Russia has, thus far, resisted the offer.
U.S. embassy officials in Moscow met with Griner last week for the first time since she was detained.
“We are told she is doing as well as can be expected under the circumstances,” the White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre said last week following the meeting, as quoted by The New York Times.
“As we have said before, the U.S. government made a significant offer to the Russians to resolve the current unacceptable and wrongful detentions of American citizens Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan,” Jean-Pierre added, as quoted by the Times. “I can also tell you that in the subsequent weeks, despite a lack of good faith negotiation by the Russians, the U.S. government has continued to follow up on that offer and propose alternative potential ways forward with Russians through all available channels.
President Joe Biden said in a news conference on Wednesday that, with the midterm elections in the United States now completed, he is hopeful that Russian President Vladmir Putin will return to the negotiating table.
“My hope is that now that the election is over, that Mr. Putin will be able to discuss with us and be willing to talk more seriously about a prisoner exchange,” Biden said, as quoted by ESPN.