The United States said on Tuesday that it now officially considers basketball star Brittney Griner, who was arrested in Russia in mid-February, as “wrongly detained” and should speed up efforts to get his release.
“The State Department has concluded that the Russian Federation is improperly detaining American citizen Brittney Griner,” a US foreign policy spokesman said.
“The US government will continue efforts to provide Ms. Griner with appropriate support,” he added.
As a result of that decision, his case will now be directly pursued by President Joe Biden’s emissary for the release of American “hostages” abroad, Roger Carstens, a State Department official told AFP.
According to Russian customs, the 31-year-old basketball player was arrested on February 17 at an airport near Moscow with “vaporizers and a liquid with a special smell” of cannabis oil.
Anyone who is considered one of the best players in the world faces up to ten years in prison.
The arrest of this openly lesbian two-time Olympic gold medalist was not made public until March 5, 15 days after her arrest. Meanwhile, Russian forces had invaded Ukraine, sparking an international crisis and heavy US sanctions against Moscow.
In Washington, some feared from the start that the player would be used as leverage in the conflict.
But the American authorities initially kept a low profile about his case without commenting on the legal reasons for his arrest.
In a press release, the WNBA — the women’s professional basketball league in the United States — announced that it would pay tribute to Brittney Griner and “recognize her importance” by displaying her initials and her number 42 on the floors of 12 league teams during the season 2022, which begins on Friday.
“We continue to work to bring Brittney home and are grateful for the support the community has given to +BG+ and her family during this extraordinarily difficult time,” WNBA President Cathy Engelbert said in a statement.
The United States last week secured the release of ex-Marine Trevor Reed, who had been sentenced to nine years in prison in Russia for violence, as part of an exchange for a Russian pilot who was arrested by the American judiciary.
The US government continues to demand the release of another of its nationals, Paul Whelan, who has been sentenced to 16 years in prison for espionage and has maintained his innocence.