Brittney Griner’s Russian nightmare continues, as the American Olympic and WNBA star has begun her long journey to a Russian penal colony, where she is expected to serve a nine-year sentence unless the U.S. can negotiate her release.
Early Wednesday morning, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted, “We strongly protest the movement of Brittney Griner to a remote penal colony and the Russian government’s use of wrongful detentions. I am committed to bringing home Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan as soon as possible.”
Originally detained in mid-February, Griner was accused of carrying vape cartridges with hash oil in her luggage as she headed back to Moscow to play with her Russian professional team, UMMC Ekaterinburg. Like many other WNBA stars in search of a substantial pay day, Griner has played in Russia for nearly a decade.
Griner, who turned 32 last month, pleaded guilty to the drug charges, but told the court “there was no intent” and that she had mistakenly packed the cartridges. She was sentenced to nine years, which experts have said is an unusually harsh penalty even considering Russia’s draconian drug laws.
Where is Brittney Griner?
In short, no one knows exactly where Griner is right now. According to her legal team, she left a Moscow-area detention center on Nov. 4 and is on her way to a penal colony. But no one except Russian officials – who aren’t sharing details – know exactly where Griner is going and when she’ll get there. Transfers to Russian penal colonies can take up to several weeks. Her legal team expects to be notified when she reaches her final destination, but said notification is sent via official, or snail, mail and “normally takes up to two weeks to be received.”
The family of Whelan, another American who is currently wrongfully detained by Russia, previously told USA TODAY that during transport, Griner would be placed in a small, windowless railroad car with no information about her destination. She will have no communication with her legal team, U.S. officials or her family.
“They disappear off the face of the earth” is how David Whelan, the brother of Paul Whelan, described it to USA TODAY.
Why was Brittney Griner moved?
Moving to a penal colony was always on the schedule for Griner. After her conviction in early August, Griner was sentenced to nine years in a penal colony. She lost her appeal last month – which was an expected but necessary step in the process to hopefully negotiating her release – and transfer to a penal colony was expected within weeks.
It’s possible that Griner will first be taken to a transition camp of sorts, as Whelan was, but that information will not be known for weeks. The actual transfer is likely to take about a month.
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What is life in a Russian penal colony like?
Little about life in Russian penal colonies is known publicly, though the information available paints a dark picture.
Often located in remote parts of Russia, prisoners there typically perform hard labor for minimal pay. According to the Centre for Eastern Studies, most penal colonies have issues with running water and heating.
Griner will go to a female-only penal colony, but even less is known about women’s prisons in Russia. Former prisoners who have spoken publicly talk about a lack of regular medical care, long stretches in isolation for seemingly innocuous offenses, bitterly cold and uncomfortable conditions, plank-like beds and severely limited contact with the outside world. It’s likely that Griner, because of her build and strength, will be given a physically strenuous job.
How is Brittney Griner’s mental health?
Griner, who has spoken publicly about the important role therapy has played in her life, is often characterized as “doing as well as can be expected.” But her wife Cherelle, who’s given a handful of interviews since Brittney’s arrest, recently told CBS that Brittney is “at her absolute weakest moment in life right now … she’s saying things to me like, ‘my life just don’t even matter no more.’ ” Cherelle Griner described a recent conversation as “the most disturbing phone call I’ve ever experienced.”
In a statement, Griner’s agent, Lindsay Colas, said “our primary concern continues to be BG’s health and well-being … we ask for the public’s support in continuing to write letters and express their love and care for her.”
What are the next steps?
Since this summer, U.S officials have engaged in talks with Russian authorities, trying to find a resolution – likely a prisoner swap – to bring Griner and Whelan home. Multiple outlets, including The Associated Press, have reported that the U.S. offered Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in exchange for Griner and Whelan. Nicknamed “The Merchant of Death,” Bout is serving a 25-year sentence in the U.S. after being convicted in 2011 on terrorism charges.
Bliken, the Secretary of State, and other officials in the Biden administration have been adamant that they continue to work for Griner and Whelan’s freedom.
"Every minute that Brittney Griner must endure wrongful detention in Russia is a minute too long,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said. “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.”
Contributing: The Associated Press
Follow Lindsay Schnell on Twitter @Lindsay_Schnell
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Why was Brittney Griner moved to Russian penal colony?