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Brittney Griner was transferred to a penal colony in Mordovia

(CNN) — WNBA star Brittney Griner has been transferred to a penal colony in Yavas, in Russia’s western Mordovia region, her lawyers said Thursday, ending days of speculation about her whereabouts.

His lawyers, Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov, thanked everyone who reached out in support.

“First, on behalf of Brittney, we would like to thank everyone who has expressed their love for her,” they said in a statement. “We can confirm that Brittney began serving her sentence at IK-2 in Mordovia.

“We visited earlier this week. Brittney is doing as well as could be expected and trying to stay strong while adjusting to a new environment. As this is a very challenging period for her, there will be no further comment. from U.S”.

On Wednesday, the US State Department said it had been in contact with Griner’s legal team and was aware of reports that she had been sent to a penal colony about a seven-hour drive southeast of Moscow. .

“However, the Russian Federation has not yet provided any official notification for such a move by a US citizen, for which we strongly protest. The Embassy has continued to press for more information about his transfer and current location,” added a US State Department spokesperson.

Griner’s representatives previously confirmed that she had been transferred from a detention center in Iksha on November 4, and that she was destined for a penal colony, but “we do not have any information about her exact current location or final destination. According to standard Russian procedure, the lawyers, as well as the US Embassy, ​​must be notified upon her arrival at her destination. The notification is sent by official mail and normally takes up to two weeks to receive.

The Olympic gold medalist and one-time WNBA champion is trying to stay strong after nine months apart from loved ones, her agent, Lindsay Colas, said.

“At this time, we will not share any further details, but we want to express our deepest thanks to the Biden Administration, the Richardson Center, and everyone who has reached out to offer words of encouragement,” he said. “Letters have poured in from all over the world and BG has been buoyed by the support. Every letter is important and we encourage everyone to continue writing and sharing your support.”

The Richardson Center for Global Engagement “promotes global peace and dialogue by identifying and working on areas of opportunity for engagement and citizen diplomacy with countries and communities that are generally not open to more formal diplomatic channels,” its website says. .

The main concern has been for Griner’s health and well-being, Colas said earlier this week.

While conditions vary in Russia’s penal colonies, political prisoners are often placed in harsh conditions where they may be subjected to “solitary confinement or punitive stays in psychiatric units,” the State Department’s human rights report says.

Harsh conditions for Brittney Griner in a Russian penal colony 3:27

Russian law also allows forced labor in penal colonies, and in some cases, inmates have been tortured to death, the report says. There are also reports of prison authorities recruiting inmates to abuse other inmates, the report added.

That Griner’s team didn’t know his whereabouts sooner is not unusual. Transfers to penal colonies are secret processes in Russia, and relatives and lawyers are often unaware where a prisoner is sent for several days, according to Amnesty International.

Last month, Griner lost his appeal against a nine-year drug sentence. She was arrested in February and sentenced in August after admitting that she had vape cartridges containing cannabis. She has repeatedly apologized for bringing a small amount of the substance into the country, where she played basketball in spring training.

Mordovia is the same region where American Paul Whelan is being held. The former US Marine is serving 16 years in a different penal colony on spying charges he denies.

Griner’s detention has raised concerns that she is being used as a political pawn in Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Most of Russia’s prisons are penal colonies, where inmates are housed in barracks and often put to work, according to a report by Poland-based think tank the Center for Oriental Studies, known as OSW. . As of 2019, more than 800 such facilities existed across Russia, the organization said.

Built during the Soviet Union, most colonies have been compared to Soviet-era gulags; prison camps that expanded throughout the region during the rule of Josef Stalin in the mid-20th century.

All is not lost for Brittney Griner after her sentence 0:59

Russia houses almost half a million inmates at its facilities, one of the highest rates in Europe, according to World Prison Brief, but the numbers have fallen in recent years, in contrast to most of the world.

The level of supervision and restrictions placed on inmates today depends on the facility to which they are sentenced. Not all require manpower, but several high-profile dissidents, activists and foreign nationals who have been sent to colonies describe harrowing and difficult experiences.

Inmates are often taken great distances across the country. Trips to the colonias are dangerous and can take up to a month, according to Amnesty International. Journeys often take place in overcrowded train cars, and inmates often arrive at overcrowded facilities with poor and outdated infrastructure, the OSW found.

“Despite various attempts to reform the prison system in Russia, it still resembles the Soviet Gulag,” the organization said. “Human rights violations and torture are common.”

CNN’s Matthew Chance, Zahra Ullah, Anna Chernova, Abby Phillip and Rhea Mogul contributed to this report.

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