The United States government now considers women’s basketball star Brittney Griner to be “wrongfully detained” by Russia, according to a report on Tuesday by ESPN.
Citing “sources familiar with her case,” ESPN noted that the new designation by the U.S. represents “a significant shift in how officials will try to get her home.”
As a result of the shift, the U.S. and Griner’s supporters will likely be more proactive and public in their efforts to secure her freedom.
The change “means that the U.S. government will no longer wait for Griner’s case to play out through the Russian legal system and will seek to negotiate her return,” according to ESPN, and that “Griner’s fellow WNBA players and supporters in Congress will be told they have the family’s blessing to bring as much attention to her case as they wish.”
A State Department official confirmed the shift in a statement to ESPN: “The Department of State has determined that the Russian Federation has wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Brittney Griner. With this determination, the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens will lead the interagency team for securing Brittney Griner’s release.”
Griner, a six-foot-nine WNBA champion and one of the most decorated athletes of her generation, has been detained in Russia since February 17, when she was arrested at a Moscow airport over drug charges after she was allegedly carrying cannabis vape cartridges. The charge carries a potential sentence of up to 10 years in prison.
The Russian Federal Customs Service announced the detention in early March, weeks after the arrest. In the announcement, the agency did not identify Griner by name, describing her only as an American women’s basketball player who has won two Olympic gold medals. The announcement also came with a video showing a woman matching Griner’s physical description going through airport security.
In mid-March, Russian authorities extended Griner’s detention at least two more months until May 19.
“Brittney has been detained for 75 days, and our expectation is that the White House do whatever is necessary to bring her home,” Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, told ESPN in a statement on Tuesday.
ESPN provided some additional details surrounding her detention in its report on Tuesday, reporting that a “source close to Griner also confirmed Monday that former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson, who has worked privately for years as an international hostage negotiator, agreed to work on Griner’s case last week.”
“The official said that does not mean that Griner is considered a hostage, which is a different legal classification than wrongful detainee. Sources close to Griner said they were not told why she was reclassified, but they were informed Saturday morning that her case had been moved to the special envoy’s office,” ESPN reported. “Until this past weekend, her case had been handled by the consular office, which monitors the cases of any American being held abroad without necessarily intervening. State Department officials notified appropriate congressional committees of the change Monday.”
The shift in designation comes on the heels of last week’s release of former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed from a Russian prison.
Reed, who had been detained there since 2019, was released as a part of a prisoner swap for a Russian citizen who had been held in the U.S.
According to ESPN, “Griner’s team became optimistic about her fate last week” following Reed’s release, which was also negotiated by Richardon.
On Tuesday, the WNBA announced plans to feature Griner’s initials and jersey number 42 on every court this season. The season tips off on May 6.
“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,” WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in a statement. “We continue to work on bringing Brittney home and are appreciative of the support the community has shown BG and her family during this extraordinarily challenging time.”