Brittney Griner, the American basketball star who has been jailed in Russia for more than eight months, is being transferred to a penal colony, her lawyers said Wednesday. Her case has become part of a geopolitical struggle between Russia and the United States, and the Biden administration has been trying to secure a deal for her release.
Ms. Griner’s legal team said in a statement 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.
Ms. Griner, a 32-year-old star player for the W.N.B.A.’s Phoenix Mercury and two-time Olympic gold medalist, has been detained in Russia since February, when customs officials at an airport near Moscow found two vape cartridges containing a small amount of hashish oil in her luggage as she was traveling to join her Russian professional team. A Russian court convicted her in August of trying to smuggle narcotics, and an appeals court upheld her nine-year prison sentence in October.
Ms. Griner, who pleaded guilty, has apologized for what she called an inadvertent mistake, saying that the small amount of hashish oil appeared in her luggage because of negligence.
U.S. officials met with her last week, and the White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, said she was doing “as well as can be expected under the circumstances.” On Wednesday, Ms. Jean-Pierre said in a statement that the president had directed his administration to “prevail on her Russian captors to improve her treatment and the conditions she may be forced to endure in a penal colony.”
What to Know About the Brittney Griner Case
She added that the U.S. government was “unwavering in its commitment to its work on behalf of Brittney and other Americans detained in Russia,” including Paul Whelan, a former Marine who in 2020 was sentenced to 16 years in a high-security Russian prison on espionage charges.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken echoed those sentiments in a statement and called Ms. Griner’s transfer to a remote penal colony “another injustice layered on her ongoing unjust and wrongful detention.”
A drawn-out transfer to a penal colony from a Russian jail, where detainees are kept during their trials and for some time afterward, is a longtime practice in the Soviet and Russian systems, known as staging. 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.
“As we work through this very difficult phase of not knowing exactly where B.G. is or how she is doing,” Lindsay Kagawa Colas, Ms. Griner’s agent, said in a statement, using her client’s initials, “we ask for the public’s support in continuing to write letters and express their love and care for her.”
Ms. Colas said that her team remained in close contact with the U.S. government and the Richardson Center for Global Engagement, an organization run by Bill Richardson, a former New Mexico politician who is known for striking deals with foreign officials to free American prisoners.
Russian and American officials have signaled that Ms. Griner’s fate would be decided during high-level negotiations over a potential exchange for Russian inmates held in the United States. And Russian officials have indicated that a prisoner swap process could not begin in earnest until all legal due process had been fulfilled. Ms. Griner’s lost appeal and her transfer to a penal colony mean that all legal procedures have now been completed and that her sentence has officially come into force.
Penal colonies are notorious for abusive treatment of inmates, overcrowding and harsh conditions. Political prisoners like Aleksei A. Navalny and members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot have previously been sent to serve sentences in penal colonies.
Andrew E. Kramer and Ivan Nechepurenko contributed reporting.