LONDON (AP) — WNBA star Brittney Griner has begun serving her nine-year sentence for drug possession in a remote Russian penal colony that rights advocates say is notorious for its harsh conditions. difficult and its violent criminals. It is in an area once synonymous with the Soviet Gulag.
Griner was sentenced on August 4 after customs officers said they found vaping cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport. The all-star center with WNBA Phoenix Mercury and two-time Olympic gold medalist said she was prescribed cannabis for the pain and had no criminal intent.
After a Russian court rejected her appeal last month, her lawyers said she was taken to the IK-2 settlement in Mordovia, an area 350 kilometers (210 miles) southeast of Moscow.
Here’s a look at life in Russian penal colonies and Griner’s prospects for release during a prisoner exchange between the United States and Russia.
WHAT IS A PENAL COLONY?
Penal colony is a term used to describe the most common type of prison in Russia, where inmates are housed in barracks and engage in menial labor for nominal pay.
Under Josef Stalin, forced labor camps in remote locations dotted the entire USSR; some well known were in Mordovia.
“In Russia, Mordovia is known as “the land of prisoners”. Its settlements are directly descended from Stalin-era camps and have a reputation for being particularly strict,” said Zoya Svetova, a Russian journalist and human rights defender who previously worked for the Public Surveillance Commission, a prison watchdog. supported by the state.
The Gulag system and its Tsarist predecessor, which saw criminals and dissidents sent to remote parts of Siberia, provided captive labor to develop industries such as mining and mining. forestry, and to build highways and railways. Although conditions vary from one penal colony to another, Russian law still allows inmates to work, with most sewing uniforms for the Russian military and law enforcement.
Mordovia is home to more than 15 similar settlements, including the IK-17 facility where American Paul Whelan, a retired US Marine detained in 2018, is serving a 16-year sentence. Whelan was convicted of espionage, which he and Washington deny.
WHAT IS LIFE LIKE AT IK-2?
IK-2 is an all-female facility for first-time offenders, according to Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service. Its more than 800 inmates are housed in barracks.
But Svetova said IK-2 mainly holds women convicted of murder and assault, along with a growing number of people incarcerated for drug-related crimes. She told The Associated Press in an interview that she and her colleagues had received multiple reports of women being brutalized by their fellow inmates, “cruel” guards and inadequate medical facilities.
“The women’s settlements are all served by one hospital, which we were previously told was short of basic medicines,” she said.
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of the protest music group Pussy Riot, who was imprisoned in another female colony in Mordovia for protesting against Russian President Vladimir Putin at a Moscow cathedral, said in an open letter in September 2013 that she was beginning a hunger strike to draw attention to the brutal conditions.
She alleged that inmates at colony IK-14 were “collapsed under the pressure of slave-like conditions”, forced to work up to 17 hours a day and succumbed to starvation and frostbite.
“I demand that the Mordovia camp operate in accordance with the law. I demand that we be treated as human beings, not as slaves,” his letter read.
Tolokonnikova was released in December of the same year under an amnesty from the Russian parliament.
Ulyana Khmeleva, a Russian entrepreneur who spent 11 years in the penal colonies of Mordovia on drug charges she says were trumped up, described the facilities as “a moral hell” in a 2019 essay. in the independent Russian newspaper Mediazona.
She and her fellow inmates were forced to work arduous hours in freezing temperatures, she said, and witnessed the deaths of several fellow inmates.
WHAT ARE THE PROSPECTS FOR AN EXCHANGE?
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said in July that Washington had made a “substantial offer” to Moscow to bring Griner home.
Although Blinken did not give details, the AP and other news outlets reported that the Biden administration had offered to trade Griner and Whelan for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer serving a prison sentence. 25 years in the United States. merchant of death”.
This week, a senior Russian diplomat confirmed that behind-the-scenes talks are underway between Moscow and Washington.
“I would like to hope that the prospect (of exchanging Bout) is not only preserved, but is strengthened, and that the time will come when we will reach a concrete agreement,” the Russian deputy minister told reporters on Friday. of Foreign Affairs Sergei Ryabkov.
Ryabkov said that while the two countries “have not yet agreed on a common denominator”, it was “undeniable” that a swap was being discussed.
“We are certainly counting on a positive result,” he said.
The Biden administration has classified Griner and Whelan as wrongfully detained. Analysts have pointed out that Moscow could use imprisoned Americans as bargaining chips amid growing US-Russian tensions over the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Joanna Kozlowska, Associated Press