Brittney Griner sentenced to nine years on drug charges in Russia. What happens next?
Brittney Griner's trial is over. The question is: what's next? The answer, experts say, is she will eventually go to a Russian penal colony. The fear is now there will be little news about her.
The trial of Brittney Griner ended Thursday with the WNBA star expressing remorse for accidentally bringing vape cartridges containing cannabis with her when she flew to Moscow.
Hours later, a judge sentenced her to nine years in prison, and Griner headed back to the pretrial detention facility where she has been held since her arrest at the airport in mid-February. She'll stay there.
Sometime in the coming weeks, Brittney Griner will temporarily disappear while on her way to a female-only penal colony.
That is the reality for a foreigner in Russia's legal system, leaving their families worried and in the dark.
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The journey to remote Russia won't happen immediately, to allow for any appeals process, David Whelan told USA TODAY. His brother, Paul Whelan, is a former United States Marine who was arrested in Russia in 2018 and sentenced to 16 years on espionage charges the U.S. says are untrue.
Griner and Paul Whelan are considered "wrongfully detained" by the U.S. government, and the State Department has offered Russia a "substantial offer" for their returns.
'Then he just disappeared'
The time between the date of conviction and transport is usually about one month, David Whelan said.
“So she’ll get on the prison train and she’ll be on there a couple of weeks until she gets where she’s going,” he said.
In Paul Whelan’s case, he was convicted at the end of June and transported in early August. He was first taken to a “transition” camp in Mordovia – almost like a quarantine, David Whelan said.
“Then he just disappeared,” David Whelan said.
During transport, Griner will be placed in a small, windowless railroad car with almost no idea where she will be taken. Her family and supporters won't have much of a better idea.
The Russian government is supposed to inform family members that prisoners are changing locations.
“They don’t seem too worried about that if you’re not Russian,” David Whelan said. “For a couple of days, we didn’t have any idea where he’d gone or where he would be going to.”
The Whelans eventually learned he was going to a colony called IK-17. He was on the train for weeks.
No calls. No mail. Nothing.
“There’s no communication,” David Whelan said. “They disappear off the face of the earth and they reappear where they’re supposed to be in a certain sense.”
Lack of running water, heat
David Whelan believes someone from the depleted U.S. Embassy staff in Moscow could reach out to the Federal Penitentiary Service, but that would be a mostly useless exercise.
“In general, the (Service) will just ignore calls from the U.S. Embassy," Whelan said. "I doubt they would do anything special in this situation.”
Most penal colonies were constructed before 1970, are overcrowded and can be dangerous. David Whelan said the Russian Mob controls various colonies, which can be better than guard-run penitentiaries, where torture and other abuses are common.
Regardless, problems with running water and heating are common, according to the Centre for Eastern Studies.
Now Griner's camp will play the waiting game, the same one the Whelan family has played for almost four years now.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken's public admission that the United States made a "substantial offer" to Russia in June caught David Whelan off guard. But since that announcement last week, he and his family have settled back into patience mode.
The conclusion of the Griner case should move negotiations to the next stage, experts say.
"We have seen based on the Russian response that they view the substantial proposal made in June as a first offer and that there’s obviously some more to have, as far as discussions go," Whelan said. "I think we’ve got many months before we see anything actually happen."
Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.