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Brittney Griner Is Being Taken to a Russian Penal Colony - Here's What That Means

PopSugar logo PopSugar 11/9/2022 Angelica Wilson
Brittney Griner Is Being Taken to a Russian Penal Colony - Here's What That Means © Getty / Mike Mattina Brittney Griner Is Being Taken to a Russian Penal Colony - Here's What That Means

Brittney Griner is being transferred to an undisclosed Russian penal colony just a few short weeks after a Russian court denied the appeal of her nine-year sentence, according to CNN.

The American professional basketball player has been detained in Russia since February and was convicted of drug smuggling in August.

"We do not have any information on her exact current location or her final destination," Griner's attorneys Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov said in a statement to CNN. And her location may remain unknown for weeks. "Notification is given via official mail and normally takes up to two weeks to be received," the statement said.

Russian penal colonies are known for harsh conditions, such as inmate manual labor and poor access to medical care, per CNN.

Griner is currently set to finish the remainder of her nine-year prison sentence at this unknown penal colony. "Our primary concern continues to be BG's health and well-being," Griner's agent, Lindsay Colas, said in a statement, per CNN. "As we work through this very difficult phase of not knowing exactly where BG is or how she is doing, we ask for the public's support in continuing to write letters and express their love and care for her."

Here's everything we know about the situation, including how Griner ended up in Russia and when she's expected to be released.

Why Was Brittney Griner in Russia?

Griner flew to Russia to play on the UMMC Ekaterinburg team. The 31-year-old has been a member of the Russian basketball team for several WNBA off-seasons. But this particular trip came at a tense time; Griner was detained shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine. The US State Department had issued a "Do Not Travel" advisory weeks earlier, citing the ongoing tension.

The two-time Olympian might have chosen to play overseas during this off-season for many different reasons - including to earn some extra cash. WNBA players typically earn between $60,000 and $229,000, while NBA players can earn upward of $40 million. According to an Associated Press report, "[a]lmost half of the WNBA's 144 players" went overseas during the 2022 off-season, with high-ranking athletes earning more than $1 million. WNBA athlete Liz Cambage said on "NBA Today" that she is able to earn "five to eight times more" by playing overseas.

Why Was Brittney Griner Detained?

In her first court appearance, Griner was accused of transporting a "significant amount" of cannabis oil, per The Washington Post. The charges allege that before traveling to Russia in February, Griner "bought two cartridges for personal use, which contained 0.252 grams and 0.45 grams of hash oil," as reported by Russian state news agency TASS. In her July 7 hearing, Griner told the court that she did not purposely break the law. "I'd like to plead guilty, your [honor]. But there was no intent. I didn't want to break the law," Griner said, per Reuters. Griner's lawyers also told Russian judges in another hearing that the cannabis was prescribed for medicinal use for "severe chronic pain," according to CNN.

"We continue to insist that, by indiscretion, in a hurry, she packed her suitcase and did not pay attention to the fact that substances allowed for use in the United States ended up in this suitcase and arrived in the Russian Federation," Boykov stated, according to CNN.

On June 27, Griner opened up about her initial detainment at the airport. She testified that she was forced to sign documents without understanding what they said, per CNN. Griner said that she was not read her rights and that she tried to use Google Translate on her phone to understand the documents but "barely knew what was in them." After the first round of paperwork, Griner said she was later taken to another room, her phone was taken away, and she was forced to sign even more confusing documents with no explanation. Griner said no attorney was present.

Nearly two months later, on Aug. 4, Griner was sentenced to nine years in prison by a Russian court for smuggling drugs into the country. President Joe Biden released a statement regarding Griner's sentencing: "Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney. It's unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates. My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible."

But on Oct. 25, Griner was given more bad news when a Russian court denied her sentence appeal. The court called the original nine-year sentence "fair," according to CNBC. "[Griner] had some hope but that vanished today," Blagovolina told reporters outside the courtroom that day, according to CNBC.

When Will Brittney Griner Be Released?

About a week after Griner was sentenced, Russia confirmed it was in prisoner-swap negotiations with the United States. President Biden reportedly offered convicted Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout (currently serving out a 25-year sentence in the United States) in exchange for Griner and American Paul Whelan, who's also imprisoned in Russia, according to CNN. However, the talks have reportedly been unproductive, and nearly two months later, Griner is still detained in Russia.

However, some say that even though Griner has received a guilty verdict and sentencing, a prisoner swap still could take place. In 2020, for instance, a Russian court similarly sentenced US Marine Trevor R. Reed to nine years in prison, but he was later exchanged in a swap between Russia and the US, The New York Times reported. But as of now, Griner's release date is still to be determined.

The situation has sparked outrage among her family, fellow players, fans, human-rights organizations, and more. The #FreeBrittneyGriner movement has emerged on social media. And on June 22, several groups, including the National Organization For Women, the Human Rights Campaign, the National Urban League, and the National Action Network, banded together to send a letter to Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, per The New York Times. The letter urged the administration "to make a deal to get Brittney back home to America immediately and safely."

Griner also previously pleaded to the president directly in a handwritten letter. She expressed that she was "terrified I might be here forever," per CNN. "I realize you are dealing with so much, but please don't forget about me and the other American Detainees," Griner went on to say. "Please do all you can to bring us home."

Recently, Cherelle Griner spoke for the first time since her wife's sentencing in an interview with Gayle King on "CBS Mornings."

"It's like a movie for me. I'm like, 'In no world did I ever thought, you know, our president and a foreign nation president would be sitting down having to discuss the freedom of my wife,'" Cherelle said. "It feels to me as if she's a hostage."

Cherelle continued, "I mean, this is my life and so I'm sitting there like, 'Do we get her back? Do I ever get to see my wife again?' Like, what happens here? The fact that everything's so unprecedented and everything's, like, changeable I think is a really good word. Like, I feel like every day I'm hearing something new, and so it's just kind of like, it's terrifying."

Griner's initial detention came at the same time as US sanctions against Russia following its invasion of Ukraine. At the beginning of Griner's detention, Texas Congressman Joaquin Castro deemed Russia's decision to detain the athlete to be a political move, tweeting, "I'm closely monitoring reports of Texan @brittneygriner's detention in Russia. This follows a pattern of Russia wrongly detaining & imprisoning US citizens . . . US citizens are not political pawns."

What Is Hash Oil?

Hash oil is extracted from cannabis, an illegal substance in Russia. Under Article 228 of the Russian Criminal Code, someone who commits an offense related to the "illegal acquisition, storage, transportation, making or processing of narcotic drugs, psychotropic substances or analogues thereof" could face up to 10 years in prison.

- Additional reporting by Alexis Jones, Lauren Mazzo, and Sara Youngblood Gregory

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