The State Department is escalating its efforts to rescue out lesbian WNBA star Brittney Griner from Russia more than two months after she was arrested at a Moscow-area airport for allegedly possessing vape cartridges with cannabis oil.
The American government now considers Griner to be “wrongfully detained” in Russia, where she has been held since February. The change in Griner’s status means the government will be able to dedicate more resources towards securing her release and will work to bring her home regardless of how legal proceedings play out in Russia, according to ESPN, which first reported on the development.
The State Department’s Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs is now handling the case and former United Nations Ambassador Bill Richardson has been hired to assist in those efforts.
The specific details of Griner’s detainment remain unclear. The New York Times reported that she has been held on drug charges punishable by up to 10 years in prison, but according to ESPN, she has not been formally charged with any crimes. Griner has a hearing slated for May 19.
Griner was returning to Russia to continue her off-season work playing for UMMC Yekaterinburg. Many WNBA players play off-season basketball for professional teams abroad in order to supplement their incomes. WNBA players make far less than NBA players.
Many advocates publicly wondered why Griner’s case had not gained more attention since her arrest. To this point, however, State Department officials had asked Griner’s family to avoid bringing ample attention to the case out of fear that increased publicity could make her more valuable to Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to ESPN.
Griner’s arrest coincided with the rapid deterioration of relations between Moscow and Washington during Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine. Some signs of optimism have emerged, however, after the United States and Russia recently completed a prisoner exchange to rescue former US marine Trevor Reed, who was arrested in Russia in 2019. Another former marine, Paul Whelan, remains in Russian custody.
Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, issued a written statement following Reed’s release.
“As I do everything in my power to get [Brittney Griner] home, my heart is overflowing with joy for the Reed family,” she wrote on Instagram. “I do not know personally know them, but I do know the pain of having your loved one detained in a foreign country. That level of pain is constant and can only be remedied by a safe return home…”
It is unclear whether any additional exchanges are forthcoming. In the meantime, the WNBA is responding to the government’s reclassification of Griner’s case by offering public support and calling for her release.
“Today’s news on Brittney Griner is a positive development and a next step to getting her home,” the WNBA said in a written statement on May 3. “The WNBA is in constant communication with the US government on Brittney’s case, working together to get her home safe and as soon as possible.”
Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, called on the Biden administration to do everything possible to resolve the case expeditiously.
“Brittney Griner has been detained for 75 days and our expectation is that the @WhiteHouse do whatever is necessary to bring her home,” Colas wrote on Twitter. “#WeAreBG .”
Griner, a center, has spent her entire career with the Phoenix Mercury since emerging as dominant force in the WNBA in 2013. She has averaged 17.7 points and 7.6 rebounds per game in nine seasons. On two separate occasions she has led the United States to victory in the Olympics, hauling in two gold medals.