WASHINGTON (AFP) — US President Joe Biden voiced hope Wednesday, Nov. 9, that Russian leader Vladimir Putin would negotiate “more seriously” to free basketball star Brittney Griner, who was sent to a penal colony just ahead of US congressional elections.
Biden appeared to link the case of Griner, whose plight has generated widespread anger in the United States, to Tuesday’s midterm vote in which the president’s Democratic Party exceeded expectations against the rival Republicans.
“My hope is that now that the election is over that Mr. Putin will be able to discuss with us and be willing to talk more seriously about prisoner exchange,” Biden told a post-election news conference.
“That is my intention — my intention is to get her home, and we’ve had a number of discussions so far,” Biden said.
“I’m hopeful now that our election is over there is a willingness to negotiate more specifically with us.”
He did not elaborate but tensions with Russia have soared over the invasion of Ukraine, to which the United States is sending billions of dollars in weapons.
The United States has previously accused Russia of election interference and Putin openly voiced his preference in the 2016 election for Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump, who has voiced admiration for the Russian leader.
Griner has been jailed for nine years for possession of a small quantity of cannabis oil. She was transferred out of a detention center on November 4, her legal team said.
She “is now on her way to a penal colony,” lawyers Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov said in a statement.
“We do not have any information on her exact current location or her final destination,” they added.
Russia generally notifies of a prisoner’s transfer to a different address by mail, taking up to two weeks, the lawyers said.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has reached out directly to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to discuss a prisoner swap, despite refusing to speak more broadly with him about the war, saying Russia is not serious about ending it.
Blinken described Griner’s transfer as “another injustice layered on her ongoing unjust and wrongful detention.”
Griner — a two-time Olympic basketball gold medalist and Women’s NBA champion — had been in Russia to play for the professional Yekaterinburg team during her off-season from the Phoenix Mercury Women’s National Basketball Association side.
She said the cannabis in vape cartridges was to treat painful sports injuries, but Russia does not allow medical marijuana use.
Observers have suggested that Griner and another American jailed in Russia, Paul Whelan — a retired US Marine arrested in December 2018 and accused of spying — could be traded for Viktor Bout, a famed Russian arms trafficker serving 25 years in prison on a 2012 conviction.
Activists say abuse and torture are frequent in Russia’s vast network of prisons run by the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN), a successor to the notorious Gulag system of the Stalin era.
Penal colonies are the most common type of prisons and are known for their harsh treatment of inmates, unsanitary conditions and lack of access to proper healthcare.
Prisoners’ rights activist Vladimir Osechkin said conditions in penal colonies are much harsher than in detention centers.
“It is a more totalitarian system with Gulag uniforms and 100 people per room in barracks,” Osechkin, who founded the Gulagu.net rights group, told AFP, warning that prison officials routinely orchestrate conflicts and fights between inmates.
“If the Kremlin decides not to torture the basketball player and creates VIP conditions for her, she will be allowed to eat separately, play sports and keep fit,” said Osechkin.
But if “the federal prison service receives an order to put pressure on her then of course her life and health will be in danger.”
Whelan is in the IK-17 colony in the central region of Mordovia, where the American’s brother says he has undergone sleep deprivation.
The treatment of the jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny has also highlighted abuses in prisons, activists say.
The 46-year-old has been repeatedly placed in solitary confinement, which his supporters say amounts to torture.
Anti-torture project Gulagu.net has drawn attention to what it calls systemic abuse and sexual violence toward prisoners.
Many Russians were shocked last year when the group released harrowing video footage of a naked man being raped with what appeared to be a broom stick at a prison hospital.