According to the State Department, the US government now considers WNBA star Brittney Griner to be “wrongfully detained” in Russia.
“The welfare and safety of US citizens abroad is one of the US government’s top priorities.” “The Department of State has determined that the Russian Federation wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Brittney Griner,” a spokesperson for the department told ABC News on Tuesday. “As a result of this decision, Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens will lead the interagency team tasked with securing Brittney Griner’s release.”
With this classification, the United States will be more involved in negotiating her release.
“Brittney has been detained for 75 days, and we expect the White House to do whatever it takes to bring her home,” Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, said in a statement on Tuesday.
Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, was arrested in February at a Moscow area airport for allegedly having vape cartridges in her luggage that contained hashish oil – an illegal substance in Russia.
According to Russian media reports, she is facing drug charges that could result in up to ten years in prison, and her pre-trial detention was extended in March to May 19. On March 24, Griner met with a U.S. official from the consular officer in Russia as part of the United States’ push to gain access to the WNBA star.
According to a State Department spokesperson, the US is “deeply concerned” about “our lack of consistent consular access to these US citizens in recent months.”
“While the Russian government has granted consular access in this case, we continue to demand that they grant regular, timely consular access to all U.S. citizen detainees in Russia, including those in pre-trial detention.” We take our responsibility to assist US citizens seriously, and we will continue to advocate for fair and transparent treatment of all US citizens who are subject to legal processes in other countries,” the spokesperson said.
The release of Marine veteran Trevor Reed from a Russian prison as part of a prisoner exchange fueled calls for Griner’s release last week.
Paul Whelan, a former Marine, has also been detained in Russia since 2019. Whelan’s brother, David Whelan, told ABC News on Monday that after Reed’s release, his brother asked, “Why was I left behind?”
The Russian invasion of Ukraine began one week after Griner was apprehended on February 17. Some officials are concerned that Americans imprisoned in Russia will be used as a bargaining chip in the ongoing conflict.
Last month, Nneka Ogwumike, president of the WNBA Players Association, told “Good Morning America” that the league understands the importance of being “strategic” when discussing Griner’s case to ensure her safety.
“It’s tough — that could have been us,” Ogwumike said. “We’re really most concerned about her health and safety. Especially her mental health. We’re hearing that … she’s OK. But we want her home.”
The WNBA announced on Tuesday that Griner will be honored with a floor decal bearing her initials and jersey number (42) on the sidelines of all 12 WNBA teams when the 2022 season begins on Friday.
Griner, a seven-time WNBA All-Star, has been with the Phoenix Mercury since 2013.
The Phoenix Mercury’s executive vice president and general manager, Jim Pitman, said in a statement on Tuesday that the team will also launch various philanthropic initiatives, including BG’s Heart and Sole Shoe Drive, to recognize Griner’s community contributions.
Griner’s trip to Russia to play off-season basketball has brought to light the issue of pay disparities in the NBA. Many WNBA players travel around the world to play in the off-season because they do not make enough money during the season – an issue that does not affect NBA players who are paid more. The highest WNBA salary is $228K, while star NBA players can earn at least $1 million per year.
Ogwumike, who has also traveled abroad to play during the off-seasons, believes there is a gender issue at work in Griner’s case.