US basketball star Brittney Griner – who has been held in Russia since February on accusations of drug smuggling – will remain in Russian custody through at least July 2, after a Russian court extended her detention, Russian state news agency TASS reported Tuesday.
Griner, 31, has been officially classified as “wrongfully detained,” a US State Department official told CNN in May.
Supporters, including Griner’s family and the WNBA, have vigorously advocated for her release, with some expressing concerns Russia would use Griner as a political pawn amid tensions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Griner was arrested at a Moscow airport in February, when Russian authorities claimed she had cannabis oil in her luggage and accused her of smuggling significant amounts of a narcotic substance, an offense punishable by up to 10 years in prison. The two-time Olympic gold medalist and star of the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury plays in Russia during that league’s offseason.
Griner’s detention has been extended repeatedly. A Russian court announced in March it had extended her pretrial detention until mid-May. Last month, Griner’s detention was extended once again until June 18, TASS reported at the time.
“Our position for some time on this has been very clear: Brittney Griner should not be detained. She should not be detained for a single day longer,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Tuesday.
The State Department learned of the news through Russian state media reports, Price said. The US last had consular access to Griner last month, he told reporters.
Griner’s case is being handled by the office of the US Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, a State Department official confirmed to CNN last month. The office leads the government’s diplomatic efforts to secure the release of Americans wrongfully detained abroad and played a major role in securing the release of US citizen Trevor Reed in a late April prisoner swap with Russia.
In a statement late Tuesday, Griner’s agent said it was clear the player was being used as a “political pawn.”
“Her detention is inhumane and unacceptable. She has not had a single phone call in her 117 days of wrongful detention,” said Lindsay Kagawa Colas, who called on President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to “act with urgency and do whatever it takes to bring Brittney home immediately.”
News of Griner’s detention being extended comes a day after State Department officials – including those from the hostage affairs office – briefed her teammates on Griner’s situation and efforts to bring her home.
“We are on Day 116 since BG has been wrongfully detained,” Mercury head coach Vanessa Nygaard said, adding, “She’s our teammate, she’s an American and we want her back home.”
For star guard Diana Taurasi, the State Department’s announcement that Griner’s detention was wrongful signaled to the team that officials are taking the situation seriously, she said Monday.
“It’s something that we’ve all talked about intimately as a group, and now knowing the State Department at the highest level – from US President Joe Biden to the team that is working on bringing back all Americans who are wrongfully detained – gives us a lot of confidence that they’re working on it,” Taurasi said.
“Anything that we can do on our side to amplify and to put BG first will be our No. 1 priority,” she said.
Separately, Reed – an American veteran who spent nearly three years in a Russian prison – has filed a petition with the United Nations declaring Russia violated international law with his detention and poor treatment, he told CNN Tuesday.
Holding Russia accountable will “force Russia to end this practice for all Americans that they’re holding there,” including Griner and Paul Whelan, Reed told CNN. Whelan, a US citizen and former Marine, was detained at a Moscow hotel in 2018 and arrested on espionage charges, which he has denied.
CNN has reached out to the UN and Russia’s Permanent Mission to the UN for comment on Reed’s petition.