The U.S. Department of State has determined that WNBA All-Star Brittney Griner was “wrongfully detained” when she was arrested at an airport in Russia back in mid-February on drug charges.
This classification means that the U.S. will work more aggressively to secure Griner’s release, even as her legal case continues to play out overseas, The Associated Press reported citing two U.S. officials.
A State Department spokesperson confirmed the reclassification to HuffPost but declined to go into detail on the reason for the change, which was first reported by ESPN on Tuesday.
The spokesperson noted that all cases involving a U.S. national being detained abroad are reviewed to determine if they are “unlawful” or “wrongful” and that for privacy or operational reasons, not all wrongful detention determinations are made public.
The president of the WNBA players union, Nneka Ogwumike, reacted to the news of the determination and expressed hope that it will lead to Griner’s swift return to the U.S.
“It has been 75 days that our friend, teammate, sister, Brittney Griner, has been wrongfully detained in Russia. It is time for her to come home,” she tweeted.
The Phoenix Mercury center was detained after the Russian Federal Customs Service said its officials found vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage at an airport near Moscow. The drug charges could carry up to 10 years in prison.
Griner was returning to Russia to resume playing in the Russian League, where she plays in the WNBA off-season.
Late last month, U.S. Marine veteran Trevor Reed, who was detained in Russia back in 2019 after being accused of assaulting an officer, was released as part of a prison swap.
Another American who continues to be unjustly retained in Russia according to U.S. officials is Paul Whelan. Whelan was charged with espionage by Russian intelligence officials after visiting Moscow in 2018 for a friend’s wedding and in 2020 sentenced to 16 years in prison.
Whelan’s brother, David Whelan, said in a statement to reporters on Monday that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has reassured his family that the White House remains focused on securing his release.
“It is important that, as more and more Americans are arbitrarily detained, the White House move more deliberately and quickly to solve these cases. We will continue to encourage them to do so,” David Whelan said.