When Russian authorities removed Brittney Griner from a jail outside Moscow almost two weeks ago and transferred her to an undisclosed prison facility, her family went days without knowing where she was going or when she would get there.
Now, at last, Griner’s attorneys have learned her destination.
Griner has begun serving the remainder of her nine-year sentence at a remote penal colony 300 miles southeast of Moscow, the American basketball star’s defense attorneys said Thursday in a statement.
Attorneys Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov visited Griner earlier this week at IK-2 in Mordovia. They reported that she is “doing as well as could be expected and trying to stay strong as she adapts to a new environment.”
“Considering that this is a very challenging period for her, there will be no further comments from us,” Blagovolina and Boykov said.
Griner has been behind bars in Russia since last February when she flew into Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport with a small amount of cannabis oil in her luggage. She apologized repeatedly in court last summer for what she described as “an honest mistake” but a Russian judge handed down a sentence just shy of the maximum allowable 10 years.
When a Moscow regional court rejected Griner’s last-gasp appeal last month, it signaled that the eight-time WNBA All-Star would soon have to endure somewhere worse than the Novoye Grishino pre-trial detention center where she had been held up to that point. Her sentence called for her to be transferred to a penal colony, where conditions can be more brutal and inmates are required to work long hours doing menial tasks for little pay.
There are hundreds of penal colonies in Russia, many of them scattered across Siberia. Griner’s supporters had hoped she’d be sent somewhere close to Moscow so that her attorneys could frequently check on her in person, but they did not get their wish.
If there's one advantage to penal colony life for Griner, it could be the morale boost of more frequent communication with her loved ones. Other Americans detained in Russia have been allowed to communicate more often with family and friends after leaving pre-trial detention facilities.
Griner's wife has said that they did not speak by phone until August and that they've had limited communication since then.
Griner's most realistic path home before the end of her prison sentence is likely via a prisoner exchange. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has pressed Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov to accept what Blinken has described as a “substantial proposal” to secure the release of Griner and Paul Whelan, another American whom the U.S. government considers wrongfully detained.
The offer for Griner and Whelan is believed to be a 2-for-1 prisoner swap exchange for a notorious Russian arms trafficker known as “the Merchant of Death.” Viktor Bout is serving a 25-year sentence in an Illinois federal prison for conspiring to kill Americans and sell weapons to a Colombian terrorist group.
Thus far, Russia has shown no signs that an exchange for Bout alone is sufficient. President Joe Biden expressed hope last week that Russian president Vladimir Putin would “be willing to talk more seriously” about an exchange for Griner now that U.S. midterm elections are over and Russia wouldn’t be delivering Biden a timely political win.
“My intention is to get her home,” Biden said. “And we’ve had a number of discussions so far. And I’m hopeful that, now that our election is over, there is a willingness to — to negotiate more specifically with us.”
Biden met with Griner’s wife at the White House earlier this fall and reiterated that securing the WNBA star’s release is a top priority for his administration. Days after that meeting, Cherelle Griner told "CBS Mornings" that Griner is at her “absolutely weakest moment in her life right now” and is “very afraid of being left and forgotten in Russia.”
In a statement on Thursday, Griner's agent Lindsay Colas said that her client is "trying to stay strong." Colas expressed her “deepest thanks” to those who have offered words of encouragement to Griner via www.wearebg.org.
“Letters have poured in from around the world,” Colas said, “and BG has been buoyed by the support.”