Christian Petersen/Getty Images
The Biden administration said Tuesday that WNBA superstar Brittney Griner was wrongfully detained by the Russian government – a change in language that indicates the United States will work more aggressively to secure her release.
The State Department had not gone so far in its previous statements regarding Griner, who was arrested at an airport outside Moscow in February after authorities allegedly found vaping cartridges containing vape oil. hashish in his luggage.
“The U.S. government will continue to make efforts to provide appropriate support for Ms. Griner,” a State Department spokesperson said.
Griner, a Phoenix Mercury center, plays for Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg in the offseason. WNBA athletes frequently play overseas for teams that pay more than they earn in the United States
His detention came just days before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, which drew swift rebukes and punitive sanctions from the United States, of which Griner is a citizen. Russian President Vladimir Putin is feared to use Griner as a political prisoner to get something from the United States
By labeling Griner as wrongfully detained, the US government will now negotiate her return rather than wait for her case to progress through the Russian court system, ESPN reported.
The outlet also said other Griner players and supporters in Congress would be told they had his family’s blessing to bring attention to his case.
The WNBA announced on Tuesday that it would honor the six-time All-Star by putting his initials and jersey number – 42 – on the sidelines of the league’s 12 courts.
“As we begin the 2022 season, we’re keeping Brittney at the forefront of what we do across basketball and in the community,” WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in a statement. “We continue to work to bring Brittney home and appreciate the support the community has shown BG and her family during this extraordinarily difficult time.”
The State Department spokesman also confirmed that a U.S. official had a consular visit with Griner on March 23 and said the administration would push Russia to grant “regular and expeditious consular access” to all US citizens detained in the country.
Last week, Russia released US citizen Trevor Reed, a former marine, who had been held in the country for 985 days. In exchange, the United States released a Russian pilot convicted of drug trafficking.
The State Department is still trying to secure the release of another Navy veteran detained in Russia, Paul Whelan, who was charged with espionage and is serving a 16-year prison sentence.
NPR’s Michele Kelemen contributed to this report.