American basketball star Griner begins serving sentence in Russian penal colony

American basketball star Brittney Griner has been sent to a remote Russian penal colony and has begun serving a nine-year sentence for drug possession, her lawyers and agent said Thursday.

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Griner has been moved to a penal colony in Mordovia, about 350 kilometers (210 miles) east of Moscow.

“Brittney began serving her sentence at IK-2 in Mordovia,” lawyers Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov said in a statement.

“We visited her early this week. Brittney is doing as well as can be expected and is trying to stay strong as she adjusts to a new environment.”

Griner was sentenced to nine years in prison in August for possession of vape cartridges containing a small amount of cannabis oil, after she was arrested at a Moscow airport in February.

The 32-year-old’s fall came amid fierce tensions between Moscow and Washington over Russia’s military offensive in Ukraine.

Conditions in penal colonies harsher than prisons

Mordovia is the same region where another American, Paul Whelan, is serving a 16-year sentence in another criminal settlement after being convicted of espionage, which he denies.

The penal colony IK-2 is located in the city of Yavas in the central region of Mordovia, known for its harsh climate.

IK stands for “corrective colony”, the most common type of prison in Russia.

According to Russia’s Federal Correctional Service, IK-2 houses more than 800 prisoners who live in barracks.

Inmates in Russian penal colonies must work long hours for meager pay doing tedious manual tasks such as sewing. Former prisoners and human rights groups describe the conditions there as harsh and unsanitary

Conditions in penal colonies are also much stricter than in detention.

Activists say abuse and torture are frequent in Russia’s vast network of prisons, a successor to the infamous Stalin-era Gulag system.

At the time of Griner’s arrest, the two-time Olympic basketball gold medalist and women’s NBA champion had been in Russia to play for the professional Yekaterinburg team, in the offseason from the Phoenix Mercury.

During her trial, Griner — who played basketball for a Russian team in the United States in the offseason — said she had used cannabis to ease sports injuries but had no intention of breaking the law or using the banned substance in Russia. She told the court she made an honest mistake by packing the cartridges in her luggage.

Use of medical marijuana is not allowed in Russia.

Russia and the United States have discussed exchanging Griner and Whelan for a Russian arms dealer jailed in the United States, but no deal has materialized amid heightened tensions between the two countries.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and Reuters)

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