The U.S. government on Tuesday determined that WNBA player Brittney Griner is being “wrongfully detained” in Russia and additional efforts will be focused on securing her release, the U.S. State Department announced.
Griner, a WNBA All-Star player and two-time Olympic gold medalist, was detained in February at a Moscow-area airport after allegedly being caught with vape cartridges in her luggage that contained hashish oil, an oleoresin obtained by the extraction of cannabis or hashish.
In March, a Russian court extended Griner’s detention until May 19. If convicted on drug smuggling charges, she faces five to 10 years in prison.
“The Department of State has determined that the Russian Federation has wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Brittney Griner. … The U.S. government will continue to undertake efforts to provide appropriate support to Ms. Griner,” a spokesperson for the department said, ESPN reported.
The spokesperson added that the “welfare and safety” of Americans moving abroad are among the “highest priorities of the U.S. government.” The change in Griner’s designation means the U.S. government will work to secure her release more aggressively and will no longer wait for her case to play out through Russia’s legal system.
The spokesperson declined to say what prompted officials to classify Griner’s case as a “wrongful detainment” or if there had already been discussions on securing her release, and on which terms.
Her case is now being handled by the office of the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs (SPEHA) Roger Carstens, which is focused on negotiating for the release of hostages and other Americans classified as being wrongfully detained in other countries.
WNBA star Nneka Ogwumike said in a series of posts on Twitter that Griner has been detained for 75 days, adding she hopes that now the U.S. government has determined she is “being wrongfully detained,” efforts to bring her home “will be significant, swift and successful.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Tuesday that any shift that reclassified Griner as being wrongfully detained was made in coordination with the U.S. State Department and the hostage negotiator, which in this case is SPEHA.
“Typically, and I don’t believe this will change, in order to leave the space to have an outcome we all want and desire—which is to bring her and any American detained or unjustifiably detained home—we typically don’t talk about it extensively,” Psaki said.
The WNBA released a statement following the department of state’s announcement, saying the news is “a positive development” and one step closer to getting Griner home.
“The WNBA is in constant communication with the U.S. government on Brittney’s case, working together to get her home safe and as soon as possible,” the league said.
The move comes about one week after the Russian government on April 27 released jailed former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed in exchange for a Russian pilot. The former Marine had been imprisoned in Russia since 2019 and was serving a nine-year term after he was charged for allegedly assaulting two officers in Moscow.
Reed was exchanged for Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was serving a 20-year prison term in the United States after being convicted on drug charges. In 2010, Yaroshenko was arrested in Liberia and extradited to the United States.
Multiple other Americans still remain jailed in Russia, including Michigan corporate security executive Paul Whelan.