Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned the Kremlin for sending jailed U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner to a Russian forced labor camp, nearly nine months after she was arrested in Moscow for allegedly possessing cannabis oil in her luggage.
Ms. Griner’s lawyers told Russia’s official Tass news agency that the WNBA center and two-time Olympic gold medalist was transferred on Nov. 4 from the pre-trial detention center where she had been held to a penal colony where she will serve her nine-year sentence.
The case has proven another source of tension in a relationship already strained by Russia‘s invasion of Ukraine. The U.S. has said it had made an offer for a prisoner swap to free Ms. Griner and another American held by Moscow, but so far, the deal has not come together.
“It is another injustice layered on her ongoing unjust and wrongful detention,” Mr. Blinken said Wednesday in a statement. “As we work to secure Brittney Griner’s release, we expect Russian authorities to provide our embassy officials with regular access to all U.S. citizens detained in Russia.”
She was sent to a penal colony after a Russian court rejected an appeal of her sentence last month. Maria Blagovolina, a lawyer representing Ms. Griner, told the Russian press she was unaware of her client’s whereabouts or where she was being taken.
“As lawyers, we and the U.S. Embassy should be notified as soon as she reaches the point of her destination,” Ms. Blagovolina said.
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Conditions inside the country’s notorious prison system are harsh and potentially life-threatening, according to a 2021 State Department investigation into human rights practices in Russia.
“Overcrowding, abuse by guards and inmates, limited access to health care, food shortages, and inadequate sanitation were common in prisons, penal colonies, and other detention facilities,” according to the State Department report. “There were reports that prison authorities recruited inmates to abuse other inmates.”
President Biden, addressing reporters at the White House Wednesday, said he hoped the end of the U.S. campaign season may make Russian President Vladimir Putin more open to a deal to free Ms. Griner.
“My hope is that now that the election is over, that Mr. Putin will be able to discuss with us and be willing to talk more seriously about a prisoner exchange,” Mr. Biden said, adding that he remained “determined to get [Ms. Griner] home,” along with other Americans being held unjustly in Russian jails.
The State Department investigation says conditions inside Russia’s prisons varied but generally were poor. Drinking water is sometimes rationed and many inmates rely on food provided by family members or NGOs.
“Political prisoners were placed in particularly harsh conditions and subjected to punitive treatment within the prison system, such as solitary confinement or punitive stays in psychiatric units,” according to the State Department report.
Ms. Griner’s agent, Lindsay Colas, said the nine-year prison sentence is regarded as harsh and extreme even by Russian standards.
“We call on all people, fellow Americans along with the global sports community, to unite … to do what is necessary to rescue her. We must support the use of all available tools to secure the safe return of [her] and all Americans with urgency,” Ms. Colas said in a Twitter post.
The White House said Ms. Griner, a center for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, is being wrongfully detained and insisted they are working “tirelessly” to secure her release. The Biden administration has offered to swap jailed arms dealer Viktor Bout for Ms. Griner and Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine arrested in December 2018 and accused of spying against Russia.
“The U.S. government made a significant offer to the Russians to resolve the current unacceptable and wrongful detentions of American citizens,” White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement Wednesday. “Despite a lack of good faith negotiations 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.”
Ms. Griner was arrested just days before President Vladimir Putin sent troops into Ukraine and her supporters say Russia is using her purely as a political pawn.
The Associated Press reported that a senior State Department official, briefing reporters on background, said the Russians had not notified American diplomats of Ms. Griner’s transfer ahead of time and had not yet responded to queries from the American embassy about either her current whereabouts or ultimate destination.
Correction: An editing error incorrectly identified Ms. Griner on second reference.