State Department Says Brittney Griner Has Been 'Wrongfully Detained' as WNBA Announces Tribute

In February, Brittney Griner was arrested in Russia after customs officers allegedly found vape cartridges that contained hash oil while she was traveling through an airport outside Moscow

Brittney Griner
Photo: Gregory Shamus/Getty

The U.S. State Department said it has now classified Brittney Griner's February arrest in Russia as wrongful detainment, which indicates a shift in how government officials will attempt to bring her home.

"The Department of State has determined that the Russian Federation has wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Brittney Griner," a State Department spokesperson said in a statement obtained by PEOPLE on Tuesday. "The U.S. Government will continue to provide appropriate support to Ms. Griner and her family."

In February, the 31-year-old WNBA star was arrested in Russia after customs officers allegedly found vape cartridges that contained liquid hash oil while she was traveling through an airport outside Moscow.

The basketball player has not yet been formally charged but is scheduled for a court hearing in Russia on May 19. She could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of the crime, according to The Washington Post.

According to the Associated Press, the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs will now oversee Griner's case. That State Department office is focused on hostage release and the freeing of wrongfully detained Americans.

Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and his non-profit the Richardson Center is also working on Griner's release. The organization helped secure the recent release of former Marine Trevor Reed, who was held in Russia for almost three years until last month, according to USA Today.

Brittney Griner #15 of Team United States during team warm up before the France V USA Preliminary Round Group B Basketball Women match at the Saitama Super Arena during the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympic Games on August 2, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.
Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty

In March, Griner, who plays for the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury, met with U.S. officials in Russia, the State Department said at the time.

"The consular officer who visited with Brittney Griner was able to verify that she was doing as well as can be expected under these very difficult circumstances," Ned Price, a U.S. State Department spokesperson, said during a department press briefing.

"We'll continue to work very closely with her legal team, with her broader network, to see to it that she is treated fairly and that her rights are respected," he continued.

News of the State Department's designation comes as the WNBA announced its own plans to bring attention to the case by placing "BG 42" decals on arena floors when their new season gets underway on Friday.

"As we begin the 2022 season, we are keeping Brittney at the forefront of what we do through the game of basketball and in the community," WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in a statement.

"We continue to work on bringing Brittney home and are appreciative of the support the community has shown BG and her family during this extraordinarily challenging time," she added.

The league also announced today that the Mercury has been granted both roster and salary cap relief to obtain a replacement player while Griner will receive her full salary until she is ready to return to the court.

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WNBA Union President Nneka Ogwumike also tweeted her support for Griner on Tuesday.

"It has been 75 days that our friend, teammate, sister, Brittney Griner, has been wrongfully detained in Russia," she shared. "It is time for her to come home."

She added, "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. #WeAreBG."

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