US State Department says Russia ‘wrongfully detained’ Brittney Griner three months after WNBA star’s arrest

WNBA star Brittney Griner was arrested at an airport in Moscow back in February and has been held by Russian authorities ever since

The U.S. Government Now Considers Brittney Griner "Wrongfully Detained" By The Russian Government

The US State Department has accused Russia of wrongfully detaining Brittney Griner, three months after the WNBA star was first arrested at an airport in Moscow.

A State Department official told The Indepedent that the Biden administration has reclassified the Phoenix Mercury basketball player as being wrongfully detained by Russian authorities and that her situation is now being handled by the office of the US Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs (SPEHA) Roger Carstens.

“The welfare and safety of US citizens abroad is among the highest priorities of the US government,” the official said.

“The Department of State has determined that the Russian Federation has wrongfully detained US citizen Brittney Griner.”

The official added that the US government will “continue to undertake efforts to provide appropriate support” to the basketball star.

SPEHA is the department responsible for leading the US’ efforts to secure the release of Americans who are taken hostage or wrongfully detained abroad.

The recategorisation of her detention and allocation to SPEHA raises hopes for the 31-year-old’s release as it means the US government will now more aggressively push for her freedom without waiting for the case to pass through Russian courts.

It comes just days after SPEHA successfully secured the release of another American being held by the Kremlin in a high-profile prisoner swap.

Last week, former Marine Trevor Reed finally returned to US soil after being held by Moscow since 2019 for allegedly assaulting a police officer while intoxicated in the Russian capital.

Mr Reed was released in an exchange for the release of Konstantin Yaroshenko, a former Russian pilot being held in the US on drug trafficking charges.

Nneka Ogwumike, president of the WNBA players’ union, said in a statement about the change in official classification around Ms Briner’s detention that “it has been 75 days that our friend, teammate, sister, Brittney Griner, has been wrongfully detained in Russia”.

“It is time for her to come home,” she said.

“Having learned that the US government has now determined that BG is being wrongfully detained we are hopeful that their efforts will be significant, swift and successful.”

Ms Griner’s agent Lindsay Kagawa Colas told ESPN that she expects the White House to do everything it can to secure the release of the basketball star.

“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 in a statement.

The shift in the US’ approach to Ms Griner’s detention comes as the WNBA plans to honour her with a floor decal when the new season begins on Friday while missing one of its star players.

Ms Griner was arrested when she landed at Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow back on 17 February, with Russian authorities claiming she was carrying an oil derived from cannabis in vape cartridges found in her luggage.

The cannabis derivative is legal in many countries.

But, according to Russia, Ms Griner could face up to 10 years in prison for smuggling a banned narcotic substance.

Between WNBA seasons, the Olympic medallist played in Russia’s women’s basketball league for UMMC Ekaterinburg to supplement her income from the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury.

The 31-year-old Texan was returning to Russia to compete at the time of her arrest.

Her detention also came just one week before Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, beginning a war that has so far killed thousands of civilians.

The US – and other Western allies – has been supporting Ukraine in its war efforts by sending military equipment and billions of dollars worth of aid to the country, while sanctioning Russian businesses, politicians and oligarchs.

In the almost three months following her arrest, the Biden administration had previously stopped short of classifying Ms Griner as wrongfully detained and was facing increasing pressure to secure her return to the US.

In late March, the State Department said US Embassy officials had visited the sports star in jail for the first time and said that she was in “good condition”.

Ms Griner is scheduled to appear in Russian court for a hearing on 19 May.

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