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U.S. Classifies Brittney Griner as ‘Wrongfully Detained’


Brittney Griner | Image by Rick Scuteri

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The U.S. State Department has reclassified Brittney Griner as being “wrongfully detained,” signaling a shift in strategy to more aggressively secure her release.

“The welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad is among the highest priorities of the U.S government,” the State Department said Tuesday. “The Department of State has determined that the Russian Federation has wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Brittney Griner. The U.S. government will continue to undertake efforts to provide appropriate support to Ms. Griner.”

Griner, who plays for a Russian league team during the WNBA offseason, was arrested in February at a Moscow airport while arriving in the country. Russian prosecutors alleged she illegally brought vape cartridges containing hashish oil.

Griner has not been formally charged, but a hearing is scheduled for May 19. The U.S. government now considering Griner a wrongful detainee means that the U.S. will no longer wait for Griner’s case to play out through the Russian legal system and instead begin seeking to negotiate her return.

The change in classification also means that Griner’s family, friends, and supporters can bring as much attention to the case as they wish. Until now, the State Department had advised them not to call attention to the case and risk making her a more valuable asset to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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

A State Department official told ESPN in a statement late Monday that “the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens will lead the interagency team for securing Brittney Griner’s release.”

The official clarified that Griner is not considered a hostage, which falls under a different legal classification than a wrongful detainee.

On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters aboard Air Force One that the strategy in securing the release of Griner would be coordinated between the State Department and Carstens.

“Typically — and I don’t believe this will change — in order to leave the space to have an outcome we all want and desire — which is to bring her and any American detained or unjustifiably detained home — we typically don’t talk about it extensively,” Psaki said.

“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,” Nneka Ogwumike, the WNBA players’ union president, said in a statement posted to social media. “Having learned that the U.S. government has now determined that BG is being wrongfully detained, we are hopeful that their efforts will be significant, swift, and successful.”

Griner’s team gained renewed optimism last week when former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed, held in Russia since 2019, was released in a swap for a Russian citizen convicted of drug smuggling. The deal suggests that despite Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, there remains an open diplomatic channel between the U.S. and Russia.

“We just want her home. I’m glad that they are trying to do something,” said New York Liberty coach Sandy Brondello, who previously coached Griner in Phoenix. “They had that prisoner release last week that gave me hope that BG would be one of the next ones out. I can’t imagine what she’s going through. Hopefully she’ll be out sooner than later.”

Teammate Skylar Diggins-Smith also expressed hope after the change in Griner’s classification.

“That’s still our main concern, is our sister. Obviously the season is starting and we’re dedicating this season to her until she gets back with us,” Diggins-Smith said. “We think about her every day. We love her and we’re gonna continue to carry her legacy, her voice, and play in her honor until she gets back here with us.”

The WNBA on Tuesday said it would keep Griner “at the forefront of what [they] do” this season.

The league will allow the Mercury to pay Griner her salary without it counting against the team’s cap, and all twelve teams will display a decal of Griner’s initials and her number, 42, on their home courts.

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