The U.S. Department of State has determined that WNBA star Brittney Griner is being “wrongfully detained by the Russian government,” a department official confirmed Tuesday to NBC News.
The change in official classification means Griner’s case will be handled by Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, in coordination with the State Department’s Office of Consular Affairs, the official said. With the new classification, the U.S. will be more aggressive in its efforts to secure her release. The news was first reported by ESPN.
The Phoenix Mercury star was arrested in February on drug charges after a search of her luggage at the Sheremetyevo airport near Moscow found vape cartridges containing oil derived from cannabis. In March, Russian officials said Griner’s detention was extended until May 19.
The offense could carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.
The State Department said it will continue to “undertake efforts to provide appropriate support to Ms. Griner.”
“The welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad is among the highest priorities of the U.S. Government,” a department spokesperson said in a statement Tuesday.
Under the 2020 Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act, the State Department is required to classify whether U.S. detainees are being held unlawfully or wrongfully overseas. Carstens’ office is responsible for handling such cases.
A person close to the situation previously told NBC News that Griner is doing OK and has met with her Russian legal team multiple times a week since she was detained.
Ekaterina Kalugina, a member of Public Monitoring Commission, told the Russian state news agency TASS that Griner is being held with two inmates who “had no previous convictions and are charged with drug-related articles.”
Griner, 31, is a center for Phoenix Mercury and has won a WNBA championship with the team as well as two Olympic gold medals. She is a seven-time All Star. During the winter, Griner has played in Russia for the last seven years. She last played for her Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg on Jan. 29 before the league took a two-week break in early February for the FIBA World Cup qualifying tournaments.
Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, commented on Brittney’s detainment in an Instagram post last week following news that Trevor Reed, a former U.S. Marine, was released in a prisoner exchange after nearly three years in a Russian jail.
“As I do everything in my power to get BG home, my heart is overflowing with joy for The Reed Family. I do not personally know them, but I do know the pain of having your loved one detained in a foreign country. That level of pain is constant and can only be remedied by a safe return home,” she wrote. “For the Reed family, that day is today. Welcome Home Trevor, sending love to you and your family on this special day.”
Cherelle Griner has not weighed in on the latest development in her wife’s case.