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WNBA star Brittney Griner being transferred to Russian penal colony

WNBA star Brittney Griner is escorted from a courtroom after a hearing just outside Moscow in August. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)

Brittney Griner, the WNBA star who has been detained in Russia since February, is being moved to a Russian penal colony — a type of prison facility known for its brutal living conditions — her legal team said Wednesday.

The 32-year-old was arrested at the Sheremetyevo International Airport near Moscow on Feb. 17 and accused of entering Russia with vape cartridges containing cannabis oil, which is illegal in Russia. She pleaded guilty to carrying the cartridges, saying it was an “honest mistake.” She was sentenced to 9½ years in prison in August, and a court rejected her appeal late last month.

“We do not have any information on her exact current location or her final destination,” her attorneys Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov said in a statement.

They added: “In accordance with the standard Russian procedure the attorneys, as well as the U.S. Embassy, should be notified upon her arrival at her destination,” a process they said normally takes up to two weeks.

President Biden said that he was intent on bringing WNBA player Brittney Griner home safely from Russia during a news conference on Nov. 9. (Video: The Washington Post)

Although no further information about Griner’s new location was publicly released, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrote in a tweet Wednesday: “We strongly protest the movement of Brittney Griner to a remote penal colony and the Russian government’s use of wrongful detentions.”

Russia has one of the highest rates of incarceration in Europe, with almost 520,000 inmates held in prisons throughout the country, according to the Associated Press. Most of its facilities are known as penal colonies because inmates are required to carry out labor during their sentences.

The camps share many similarities with the gulags or forced-labor camps used during the time of the Soviet Union, and media investigations have highlighted alleged abuses against prisoners in penal colonies.

Here’s what you need to know about Russian penal colonies

Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny, who was jailed after recovering from a poisoning attack, described the notorious Penal Colony No. 2, where he was initially sent, as “our friendly concentration camp.” He accused guards of denying him proper medical care or the chance to sleep and described dehumanizing surveillance.

The White House condemned the decision to move Griner into a penal colony, with press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre saying that “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,” she said in a statement.

Jean-Pierre added that the U.S. government had made “a significant offer to resolve the current unacceptable and wrongful detentions of American citizens” as Washington seeks to negotiate a diplomatic solution to free Griner and Paul Whelan, an American former security consultant serving a 16-year sentence in Russia.

Speaking on Aug. 4, WNBA superstar Brittney Griner said she had no intention of breaking Russian law after a small amount of cannabis oil was found in her bags. (Video: The Washington Post)

But Russia blamed Washington on Tuesday for the lack of progress, with Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova saying, “We have not seen any desire from the United States to resolve the specific problems of people.”

In a Wednesday statement, Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, spoke of concerns over the basketball player’s health and well-being during “this very difficult phase of not knowing exactly where BG is or how she is doing.”

“We are thankful for everyone’s support, and hope that as we near nine months of detention, that BG and all wrongfully detained Americans will be shown mercy and returned home to their families for the holidays,” Colas added.

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