The U.S. State Department has declared that Russian authorities “wrongfully detained” lesbian pro-basketball player Brittney Griner when they arrested her for alleged drug charges in February.
The department announced on Tuesday that it will lead an interagency team to help secure her release. But in the meantime, Griner may remain a bargaining chip as Russia opposes the U.S. amid Russia’s deadly, ongoing invasion of Ukraine.
“The Department of State has determined that the Russian Federation has wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Brittney Griner,” a State Department spokesperson told the Washington Blade on Tuesday. “The U.S. government will continue to provide appropriate consular support to Ms. Griner.”
The spokesperson added that Roger Carstens, the department’s special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, “will lead the interagency team for securing Brittney Griner’s release.” While Carstens provided no additional details, the announcement suggests that the State Department may take additional measures to help secure Griner’s release, rather than waiting for her case to work its way through the Russian legal system.
Russian authorities at Sheremetyevo Airport near Moscow arrested Griner on February 17, a week before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, accusing her of “large-scale transportation of drugs.” The authorities allegedly found cannabis oil vape cartridges in her luggage. The charge carries a possible five- to 10-year prison sentence.
Griner’s detainment in Russia has been extended until May 19. It’s unclear what will happen to her after that date.
A petition calling for Griner’s release, started by activist Tamryn Spruill, blamed the vast inequality of pay between male and female pro-sports athletes for Griner’s presence in Russia. To make extra money, Griner and many other WNBA players compete in Russia during the league’s off-season. Griner has played for the Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg for several years.
Observers worry that Russia may be essentially holding Brittney Griner hostage in order to use her as political leverage. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) has said that Putin intends to use Griner’s imprisonment as a “negotiating chip.”
In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the U.S. and other western allied nations have issued economic and diplomatic sanctions that have negatively impacted Russia and isolated the country from the rest of the world. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said the sanctions could be interpreted as declarations of war amid reports of Russian war crimes against Ukrainian civilians.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said the U.S. embassy is working on Griner’s case. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) is also pushing for her release.