After months of inaction, the State Department says it will actively negotiate for the WNBA star's release from Russia.
The Biden administration has officially declared WNBA star Brittney Griner to be “wrongfully detained” by the Russian government, a new stance that promises to shift the Department of State’s approach and urgency in bringing her home.
“The Department of State has determined that the Russian Federation has wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Brittney Griner,” a state official said in a statement to ESPN on Monday. “With this determination, the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens will lead the interagency team for securing Brittney Griner's release."
Along with Carstens, a source close to Griner also confirmed to ESPN that Bill Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, agreed to work on Griner’s case as well. Richardson has worked privately for years as an international hostage negotiator.
While Griner is not considered a hostage, the new classification will likely amp up efforts after a relatively quiet 75 days that she has been stuck overseas (at the behest of the State Department, Griner’s team has been cautious about publicizing the situation to avoid making her a more high profile asset for the Russian government). It also means that the U.S. government’s efforts will be independent of Griner’s legal proceedings in Russia, where she is scheduled to have a hearing on May 19. Griner was arrested in February at an airport near Moscow for allegedly carrying vape cartridges containing hashish oil.
"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, told ESPN.
While diplomatic tensions are high between both Russia and the U.S. amid the war in Ukraine, the hopeful news is also bolstered by last week’s release of Trevor Reed, a former Marine who had been detained in Russia since 2019, following a prisoner swap that also freed a convicted Russian drug trafficker in the U.S.
“It is time for her to come home,” WNBA players’ union president Nneka Ogwumike said. “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.”