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Brittney Griner ‘wrongfully detained,’ U.S. says, signaling strategy shift

Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner has been detained in Russia since February. (Rick Scuteri/AP)
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The U.S. government is now characterizing Brittney Griner’s arrest in Russia as a “wrongful detainment,” an official designation that indicates it will no longer wait for the WNBA star’s case to proceed through the Russian legal system and will take more aggressive steps to negotiate her release.

“The Department of State has determined the Russian Federation has wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Brittney Griner,” a State Department spokesperson said in a statement provided to The Washington Post on Tuesday. “The U.S. government will continue to undertake efforts to provide appropriate support to Ms. Griner.”

Griner, a seven-time WNBA all-star for the Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, has been in Russian custody since February, when she was arrested at an airport outside Moscow. Russian authorities allege that she illegally brought vape cartridges containing hashish oil into the country, a crime that could carry a prison sentence of up to 10 years. She has not been formally charged but is scheduled to have another court hearing May 19.

At the time of her arrest, Griner, 31, was returning to the Russian team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, for which she plays during the WNBA offseason.

The low-profile, high-powered race to free WNBA star Brittney Griner from Russian custody

It was unclear what prompted the State Department’s shift in how it characterized Griner’s case, news that was first reported by ESPN. However, it came a week after the release of former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed in a prisoner swap. Reed had been held in Russia since August 2019.

Brian Whitmore, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and an assistant professor at the University of Texas Arlington’s McDowell Center for Global Studies, said the change was “unquestionably” a “good development” for Griner’s hopes of gaining her release.

“It suggests maybe something is in the works, or maybe [U.S. officials] are putting pressure on the Russians,” Whitmore said. “Either way, the U.S. government appears to be changing its tack on this case.”

Tom Firestone, a partner at law firm Stroock Stroock and Lavan and a former resident legal adviser to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, agreed — with one caveat.

“It shows the U.S. government is considering her case at a very high level. In that sense, it’s a positive," Firestone said. “On the other hand, it could indicate they found reason to believe there is something wrong with her case in Russia. We don’t know what that is. They may think the case is not being treated appropriately and cannot be resolved fairly through the Russian judicial system.”

Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, said in a statement, “Brittney has been detained for 75 days and our expectation is that the White House do whatever is necessary to bring her home.”

The new designation of Griner’s case on the part of the State Department also could herald a renewed public push for her release. Previously, government officials and Griner’s representatives had taken to working behind the scenes, keeping a low public profile as her case proceeded through the Russian legal system.

With a WNBA star detained, tensions brew over players going overseas

“We feel really good about [the ‘wrongful detainment’ classification],” ESPN quoted someone close to Griner as saying without identifying the person, “but we also know it can drag out, so we don’t want to get our hopes too high.” ESPN cited another unidentified person as confirming that Bill Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador who has worked privately as an international hostage negotiator, agreed last week to take on Griner’s case.

The WNBA took steps Tuesday to raise the profile of her case, announcing that it would place “BG 42” decals on the floor of its arenas when its season opens Friday. The Mercury will host the Las Vegas Aces that night.

“It has been 75 days that our friend, teammate, sister, Brittney Griner, has been wrongfully detained in Russia,” Nneka Ogwumike, president of the WNBA players union, tweeted Tuesday. “It is time for her to come home.”

Many WNBA players head overseas during the offseason to augment their salaries, and Griner, one of the league’s most recognizable stars, earns the WNBA-maximum $228,000 with the Mercury. During her detention in Russia, the league’s board of governors approved Phoenix paying her salary, according to the Associated Press.

Last week’s release of Reed helped retrain the focus on Griner, giving her supporters hope that a negotiated release might be possible despite the heightened tension between the United States and Russia in the wake of the latter’s invasion of Ukraine. In addition to Griner, one other American, former Marine Paul Whelan, remains in Russian custody; Whelan was arrested in December 2018 on espionage charges, which he has consistently denied.

“What it’s telling me,” Whitmore said of Reed’s release, “is even though relations have sunk to their lowest level since the Cold War, diplomacy is still working at this level. I did not expect any movement on this during the war [in Ukraine].”

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