By Filipp Lebedev
(Reuters) -U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner, facing nine years behind bars in Russia after being convicted on drug charges, has been transferred to a penal colony about 500 km (300 miles) southeast of Moscow, her lawyers said on Thursday.
Griner was sentenced in August following her arrest at a Moscow airport in February with vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage. She was moved from a detention centre near Moscow on Nov. 4 to be taken to an undisclosed prison location.
Her legal team, confirming an earlier Reuters story, said Griner had been taken to Female Penal Colony IK-2 in the town of Yavas in the Mordovia region.
“We can confirm that Brittney began serving her sentence at IK-2 in Mordovia. We visited her early this week,” lawyers Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boikov said in a statement.
“Brittney is doing as well as could be expected and trying to stay strong as she adapts to a new environment,” they continued.
Mordovia is the region where another American, Paul Whelan, is serving a 16-year sentence in a different penal settlement after being convicted of espionage charges that he denies.
Asked about Griner’s case before the statement from the lawyers was issued, a U.S. State Department spokesperson said: “We are aware of reports of her location, and in frequent contact with Ms. Griner’s legal team.
“However, the Russian Federation has still failed to provide any official notification for such a move of a U.S. citizen, which we strongly protest.”
Inmates of Russian penal colonies are required to work long hours for meagre pay on tedious manual tasks such as sewing. Former prisoners and human rights groups describe conditions as harsh and unhygienic, with little access to medical care.
Russia and the United States have discussed swapping Griner and Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, for a Russian arms dealer jailed in the United States, but no deal has materialized amid heightened tensions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
At her trial, Griner – who played basketball for a Russian team in the U.S. off-season – said she had used cannabis for relief from sports injuries but had not meant to break the law. She told the court she made an honest mistake by packing the cartridges in her luggage.
(Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; writing by Mark Trevelyan; Editing by Toby Chopra, David Ljunggren and Cynthia Osterman)