The US state department has determined that American professional basketball player Brittney Griner is being “wrongfully detained” in Russia, escalating her legal case to a diplomatic matter more than two months after she was taken into custody on a drug charge.
The timing of Griner’s arrest coincided with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February, raising the sensitivity of the case for her family, agents and lawyers. In recent weeks they have been reluctant to describe it as more than a “legal matter”.
The state department on Tuesday said it has “no higher priority than the safety and security of US citizens overseas”. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, Roger Carstens, would now be overseeing Griner’s case, raising its diplomatic profile.
The US was granted consular access to Griner in March, though the new designation changes the level of US government involvement. Previously, US officials noted her detention and said little else about the case.
Griner, 31, is a two-time Olympic champion and a member of the US women’s basketball team. She is also a star centre for the Phoenix Mercury in the US’s WNBA league and for UMMC Ekaterinburg in the Russian women’s professional league.
Russian customs officials announced on March 5 they had detained a US citizen who met Griner’s description on a charge of possession of narcotic cannabis oil upon her arrival at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport in February. The offence, if proven, carries a sentence of five to 10 years in prison.
Lindsay Kagawa Colas, an agent for Griner, on Tuesday said the basketball player “has been detained for 75 days and our expectation is that the White House do whatever is necessary to bring her home”.
Over the past week Griner’s family has also enlisted Bill Richardson, a former US ambassador to the UN, to advise on her case, a spokesperson for Richardson said.
It was not immediately clear what triggered the US diplomatic shift in Griner’s case, though it comes less than a week after Washington and Moscow announced a prisoner exchange.
Griner has remained in custody in Russia pending a hearing scheduled this month. She has been meeting with her legal team in the country “multiple times a week”, said a person familiar with her case. It was not immediately clear how the state department’s new assessment might affect the prosecution.
The WNBA, which is set to begin its 2022 season on Friday, said the Phoenix Mercury will continue to pay Griner’s salary in full. The league loosened restrictions on the team’s total salary and roster space so it can field a replacement during her absence. The league is also planning to affix Griner’s initials and jersey number on each of WNBA 12 basketball courts.
“As we begin the 2022 season, we are keeping Brittney at the forefront of what we do through the game of basketball and in the community,” said Cathy Engelbert, WNBA commissioner.