What had been feared for Brittney Griner has come to pass far sooner than expected.
The process has begun for the WNBA All-Star to be transferred to a Russian penal colony, her legal team in Russia announced Wednesday in Moscow, a move her camp has dreaded since her August conviction on drug charges.
A long-shot appeal for Griner was denied on Oct. 25, opening the possibility she would be moved from her previous jail in Moscow to the significantly harsher conditions of a penal colony, where prisoners are forced into hard labor and often abused.
Griner was sentenced to nine years in prison in August.
The transfer reportedly began Friday, a day after U.S. embassy officials met with Griner. Her attorneys reportedly said such transfers typically take weeks or months, so the move seemingly came far earlier than usual. Those attorneys say they no longer know where she is, as notification of her ultimate destination comes via physical mail and can take up to two weeks to arrive.
Griner's agent Lindsay Kagawa Colas released a statement requesting public support:
"Our primary concern continues to be BG's health and well-being. As we work through this very difficult phase of not knowing exactly where BG is or how she is doing, we ask for the public's support in continuing to write letters and express their love and care for her."
It remains unclear how the move will affect negotiations for Griner's release between U.S. officials and Russia. The U.S. is believed to have offered convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in a 2-for-1 deal for Griner and fellow American prisoner Paul Whelan, but Russia has apparently demanded more in one of the highest-profile prisoner swap standoff in recent history.
Bill Richardson, a former New Mexico governor-turned-diplomat specializing in such matters has it will likely take a 2-for-2 deal to get Griner and Whelan home.
White House reacts to Brittney Griner's transfer
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre released a statement affirming the Biden administration's commitment to returning both prisoners:
Every minute that Brittney Griner must endure wrongful detention in Russia is a minute too long. As the Administration continues to work tirelessly to secure her release, the President has directed the Administration to prevail on her Russian captors to improve her treatment and the conditions she may be forced to endure in a penal colony. 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. 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 the Russians through all available channels. The U.S. Government is unwavering in its commitment to its work on behalf of Brittney and other Americans detained in Russia —including fellow wrongful detainee Paul Whelan.
Russia moving ahead with Griner's sentence on an expedited schedule could be a negotiation tactic, and ESPN noted officials believe the country is more likely to negotiate in good faith after Tuesday's midterm elections in the U.S., as Vladimir Putin's government would not want to give President Joe Biden a victory at such a pivotal time.