The State Department has determined that WNBA star Brittney Griner is being “wrongfully detained by the Russian government,” a department official confirmed Tuesday.
The change in official classification means Griner’s case will be handled by Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, in coordination with the State Department’s Office of Consular Affairs, the official said. With the new classification, the U.S. will be more aggressive in its efforts to secure her release. The news was first reported by ESPN.
Griner, the star center for the Phoenix Mercury, was arrested in February on drug charges after a search of her luggage at the Sheremetyevo airport near Moscow turned up vape cartridges containing oil derived from cannabis, authorities said. In March, Russian officials said Griner’s detention had been extended until May 19.
The offense could carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.
The State Department said it will continue to “undertake efforts to provide appropriate support to Ms. Griner.”
“The welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad is among the highest priorities of the U.S. Government,” a department spokesperson said in a statement Tuesday.
Under the 2020 Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act, the State Department is required to classify whether U.S. detainees are being held unlawfully or wrongfully overseas. Carstens’ office is responsible for handling such cases.
A person close to the situation has said that Griner is doing OK and that she has met with her Russian legal team multiple times a week.
Ekaterina Kalugina, a member of Russia’s Public Monitoring Commission, told the Russian state news agency Tass that Griner is being held with two inmates who “had no previous convictions and are charged with drug-related articles.”
Griner, 31, has won a WNBA championship with the Mercury, as well as two Olympic gold medals. She is a seven-time All Star. During the winter, Griner has played in Russia for the last seven years. She last played for her Russian team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, on Jan. 29 before the league took a two-week break in early February for the FIBA World Cup qualifying tournaments.
Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, commented on Griner’s detainment in an Instagram post last week after news emerged that Trevor Reed, a former U.S. Marine, had been released in a prisoner exchange after nearly three years in a Russian jail.
“As I do everything in my power to get BG home, my heart is overflowing with joy for The Reed Family. I do not personally know them, but I do know the pain of having your loved one detained in a foreign country. That level of pain is constant and can only be remedied by a safe return home,” Cherelle Griner wrote. “For the Reed family, that day is today. Welcome Home Trevor, sending love to you and your family on this special day.”
Cherelle Griner has not weighed in on the latest development in her wife’s case.
Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, spoke out Tuesday.
“Brittney has been detained for 75 days and our expectation is that the White House do whatever is necessary to bring her home,” she said.
Juliette Arcodia contributed.