LONDON (AP) — WNBA star Brittney Griner this week began serving her nine-year prison sentence for drug possession in a remote Russian penal colony that human rights advocates say is known for its harsh conditions. and its violent recluses. The prison is in a region that was once synonymous with the Soviet gulag.
Griner was found guilty on August 4 after customs officials said they found vape receptacles containing cannabis oil in her luggage at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport. The All-Star center for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury team and winner of two Olympic gold medals with the US national team, she said she had been prescribed cannabis for pain and that she had no criminal intent.
After a Russian court rejected her appeal last month, her lawyers said the player would be transferred to the IK-2 penal colony in the republic of Mordovia, a region 350 kilometers (210 miles) southeast of Moscow.
Here’s a look at life in Russia’s penal colonies and Griner’s chances of being released in a US-Russian prisoner swap.
WHAT IS A PENAL COLONY?
A “penal colony” is the term used to describe the most common type of prison in Russia, where inmates are housed in sheds and do unskilled work for token pay.
During the Josef Stalin regime, forced labor camps were in remote locations throughout the USSR. Some of the best known were in Mordovia.
“In Russia, Mordovia is known as ‘the land of prisoners.’ Their colonies are directly descended from Stalin-era camps and have a reputation for being particularly strict,” observed Zoya Svetova, a Russian journalist and human rights advocate who previously worked with the Public Monitoring Commission, which monitors the prison system. backed by the state.
The gulag system and its Czarist-era predecessor, in which criminals and dissidents were sent to remote regions of Siberia, provided a source of labor to develop industries such as mining and logging, as well as to build roads and railways. Although conditions vary between today’s penal colonies, Russian law still allows inmates to be put to work and most sew uniforms for the Russian police and military.
Mordovia is home to more than 15 similar colonies, including IK-17, where American Paul Whelan, a retired US Marine arrested in 2018, is serving a 16-year sentence. Whelan was convicted on espionage charges, which both he and Washington deny.
WHAT IS LIFE LIKE IN THE IK-2 PENAL COLONY?
IK-2 is a dedicated facility just for female first-time offenders, according to Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service. Its more than 800 inmates are housed in sheds.
However, Svetova has said that IK-2 mainly houses women convicted of murder and assault, as well as a growing number of those convicted of drug offences. In an interview, she told The Associated Press that she and her colleagues have received multiple reports of women being brutally assaulted by fellow inmates and “cruel” guards, and that the facility lacks adequate medical facilities.
“All the women’s colonies are attended by a hospital, from which we were previously notified that it lacked basic medicines,” he asserted.
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of the protest music group Pussy Riot, who was imprisoned in another women’s colony in Mordovia for demonstrating against Russian President Vladimir Putin in a Moscow cathedral, denounced in an open letter in September 2013 that she was going on strike starvation to draw attention to the brutal conditions there.
He claimed that inmates at colony IK-14 were “collapsing under slavery-like conditions” as they were forced to work up to 17-hour days and succumbed to starvation and frostbite.
“I demand that the Mordovian camp work according to the law. I demand that we be treated as human beings, not as slaves, ”he wrote in his letter.
Tolokonnikova was released in December of that year thanks to an amnesty from the Russian Parliament.
Ulyana Khmeleva, a Russian businesswoman who spent 11 years in Mordovian penal colonies on drug charges she says were fabricated, described the facilities as “an emotional hell” in a 2019 essay published in Mediazona, an independent Russian news outlet.
She and her fellow prisoners were forced to work long hours in freezing temperatures, she added. She denounced that they witnessed the death of several fellow prisoners.
WHAT ARE THE PERSPECTIVES OF AN EXCHANGE?
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said in July that Washington had made a “substantial proposal” to Moscow to get Griner back home.
Although Blinken did not elaborate, the AP and other news organizations have reported that the Biden administration has offered to trade Griner and Whelan for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer serving a 25-year prison sentence in the United States. Bout was once known by his nickname of the “merchant of death.”
This week, a senior Russian diplomat confirmed that there are unofficial talks between Moscow and Washington.
“I would like to hope that the possibility (of exchanging Bout) will not only be maintained but strengthened and that the time will come when we reach a concrete agreement,” the Russian Federation Deputy Foreign Minister told reporters on Friday. , Sergei Ryabkov.
Ryabkov added that while the two countries “have not yet found a common denominator”, it was “undeniable” that a swap was being discussed.
“Certainly, we are counting on a positive result,” he added.
The Biden administration has classified Griner and Whelan as wrongfully detained. Analysts have suggested that Moscow could use the two Americans as bargaining chips amid heightened tensions between the United States and Russia over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.