Exclusive: Brittney Griner taken to penal colony in Russia's Mordovia region

Nov 17 (Reuters) - U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner has been taken to a penal colony in the Russian region of Mordovia, her lawyers said, confirming an earlier Reuters report.

In August, Griner was sentenced to nine years in a penal colony on drugs charges 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.

Russian authorities have given no information on her whereabouts for nearly two weeks, but a source familiar with the case told Reuters on Thursday that she had been taken to Female Penal Colony IK-2 in Yavas, about 500 km (300 miles) southeast of Moscow. That was later confirmed by her legal team.

The colony is in Mordovia, the same 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, 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. The Embassy has continued to press for more information about her transfer and current location."

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 there 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 in the U.S. off-season for a Russian team - said she had used cannabis for relief from sports injuries but had not meant to break the law and had made an honest mistake by packing the cartridges in her luggage.

CAN GRINER APPEAL AGAIN?

A Russian court last month dismissed Griner's appeal though her lawyers could potentially bring another challenge to the procedure of the investigation or the court hearings in the court of cassation.

Griner and her lawyers had asked for acquittal or at least a reduction in her sentence, which they said was disproportionate to the offence and at odds with Russian judicial practice.

Permitted to make a final statement, Griner told the court via video link how stressful her detention and two trials had been.

"I was barely over the significant amount [of cannabis oil] ... People with more severe crimes have gotten less than what I was given," she said.

WILL THERE BE A PRISONER SWAP?

Russia and the United States are exploring a deal that could see imprisoned Americans including Griner return to the United States in exchange for convicted Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout, known as the "Merchant of Death".

"I want to hope that the prospect not only remains but is being strengthened, and that the moment will come when we will get a concrete agreement," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted as saying by Interfax.

"The Americans are showing some external activity, we are working professionally through a special channel designed for this," Ryabkov said. "Viktor Bout is among those who are being discussed, and we certainly count on a positive result."

For the two former Cold War foes, now grappling with the gravest confrontation since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, such an exchange would mark one of the more extraordinary prisoner swaps in their history.

Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; writing by Mark Trevelyan; Editing by Toby Chopra, Mike Collett-White and Alex Richardson

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