Brittney Griner status changed to “Wrongful Detention” 

Brittney Griner (Photo courtesy Lorie Shaull, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Nearly three months after WNBA star and Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner was arrested in a Moscow airport for alleged drug smuggling, the U.S. State Department now says it considers Griner to be “wrongfully detained.”

“The welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad is among the highest priorities of the U.S government,” the U.S. State Department said. “The Department of State has determined that the Russian Federation has wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Brittney Griner.

The change in status is thought by security experts and those familiar with Russian manipulation of high profile detainees, to improve Griner’s chances of release and to signal that, as PGN has previously reported, the star player has been falsely accused.

On April 27, Trevor Reed, an American who was sentenced to nine years in prison in July 2020 for endangering the “life and health” of Russian police officers in an altercation — a charge Reed has always denied — was released in a prisoner swap. Reed’s parents, Paula and Joey Reed, have been vocal in their advocacy for their son’s release. They said on April 28 that they believe that going to the White House to protest their son’s imprisonment was the right action to draw attention to his case.

Griner’s wife, Cherelle T. Griner, has posted on Instagram calling for her spouse’s release and safe return. The WNBA has issued statements about their concern for Griner’s physical and mental well-being. But neither have pushed media to respond to the lesbian activist’s case, fearing for her welfare.

The release of Reed has brought Griner’s case back into the headlines and may have also caused her status to be changed. “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 May 3.

ESPN also reported that “a source close to Griner” confirmed that former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Bill Richardson, an international hostage negotiator, had agreed to work on Griner’s case.

ESPN reports that “Reached late Monday [May 2], a State Department official issued a statement, saying, ‘The Department of State has determined that the Russian Federation has wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Brittney Griner. With this determination, the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens will lead the interagency team for securing Brittney Griner’s release.’”

PGN requested clarification from the U.S. State Department. A State Department spokesperson told PGN, “We have no higher priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas.”

The spokesperson confirmed that “The Department of State has determined that the Russian Federation has wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Brittney Griner. The U.S. government will continue to provide appropriate support to Ms. Griner and her family.”

They said, “We can confirm that consular access was granted, and a consular officer visited Brittney Griner on March 23, 2022. We continue to insist that Russia allow consistent, timely consular access to all U.S. citizen detainees. Whenever a U.S. citizen is arrested overseas, we provide all appropriate consular services.”

In response to PGN’s queries about the status of Griner’s physical and mental health, the spokesperson said, “We are closely engaged on this case and in frequent contact with Ms. Griner’s legal team. As we’ve said before, a consular officer was able to verify on March 23 that she is doing as well as can be expected.”

When pushed for further details regarding Richardson and Carstens, the spokesperson said, “We are not going to get into additional details at this time,” citing concern for the delicate nature of negotiations. 

White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters aboard Air Force One on May 3 that “Typically — and I don’t believe this will change — in order to leave the space to have an outcome we all want and desire, which is to bring her and any American detained or unjustifiably detained home,” Psaki said, “we typically don’t talk about it extensively.”

In a statement the WNBA said, “The WNBA is in constant communication with the U.S. government on Brittney’s case, working together to get her home safe and as soon as possible.”

According to a statement from the Russian Customs Service that PGN reported in March, “As a U.S. citizen was passing through the green channel at Sheremetyevo Airport upon arriving from New York, a working dog from the Sheremetyevo customs canine department detected the possible presence of narcotic substances in the accompanying luggage.”

Officials have accused Griner of smuggling “significant amounts of a narcotic substance.” Drug smuggling is a major crime that could put the player in prison for a decade. But Griner had been working in Russia for several years and brought her team to victory repeatedly. Griner has worked in the off-season in Russia since the 2014-2015 season for UMMC Ekaterinburg. It’s unlikely after so many years working in Russia that Griner would be unfamiliar with drug laws in the country.  

No one with knowledge of the case who spoke with PGN believed she would have put herself at risk with CBD oil, which is legal in the U.S. but not in Russia. Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian was detained in Tehran for 544 days before he was finally released. He was adamant as he told CNN that the charges against Griner are likely bogus, noting, “My attitude is Brittney Griner is innocent of any crimes until the world sees otherwise.”

Though she has not been formally charged, Griner is scheduled for her first hearing on May 19.