Basketball star Brittney Griner is being “wrongfully detained” in Russia, the US says.
A double gold Olympian, Griner was detained at Moscow airport in February after Russian authorities said a search of her bag revealed vape cartridges containing oil derived from cannabis.
Since then, US officials had stopped short of classifying the Phoenix Mercury player as wrongfully detained and said instead their focus was on ensuring she had access in jail to American consular affairs officials.
But now, the Biden administration has changed that – which means it will work more aggressively to secure the release of the WNBA player.
Supervision of her case has shifted to a State Department section – the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs – that is focused on negotiating for the release of hostages and other Americans classified as being wrongfully detained in other countries.
A consular officer did visit her in March.
Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas said: “Brittney has been detained for 75 days and our expectation is that the White House do whatever is necessary to bring her home.”
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The president of the WNBA players’ union, Nneka Ogwumike, said in a separate statement: “It is time for her to come home.
“Having learned that the US government has now determined that BG is being wrongfully detained we are hopeful that their efforts will be significant, swift and successful.”
It was unclear what prompted the shift in approach to Griner’s case, though President Joe Biden‘s administration had been under pressure from members of Congress and others to make her release a priority.
A statement from the State Department said it would “continue to undertake efforts to provide appropriate support to Ms Griner”.
The US last week secured the release of Marine veteran Trevor Reed as part of a prisoner swap that also resulted in a convicted Russian drug trafficker being freed from prison in America.
Besides Griner, another American regarded as unjustly detained in Russia is Paul Whelan, a corporate security executive from Michigan who was arrested in December 2018 while visiting for a friend’s wedding.
He was subsequently sentenced to 16 years in prison on espionage-related charges his family says are bogus.