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U.S. ramps up efforts to free Brittney Griner with 'wrongfully detained' classification

The State Department has assigned a "hostage affairs" official to the WNBA star's case. Griner was arrested in Russia in February.


The United States has determined WNBA star Brittney Griner is being "wrongfully detained" by the Russian government, NBC News reported Tuesday.

Griner, who plays professionally in Russia during the WNBA offseason, was arrested on drug charges in an airport near Moscow in February. Russian officials claim she’s being detained for illegally carrying vape cartridges containing hashish oil.

According to NBC News, the change in classification suggests the Biden administration is intensifying its effort to bring Griner home: 

The change in official classification means Griner’s case will be handled by Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, in coordination with the State Department’s Office of Consular Affairs, the official said. With the new classification, the U.S. will be more aggressive in its efforts to secure her release.

Griner’s arrest came as the U.S. was ramping up its response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and that has inevitably led to worries she’s being used as a political prisoner. As I wrote when the news first broke, her identity as a Black queer woman living in a repressive, patriarchal country that’s attractive to white nationalists likely made her a target — and that’s before you consider her value to Russia as a potential wartime bargaining chip. 

Griner is a superstar in the basketball world. She first gained mainstream attention after viral footage of her high school games showed her dunking and racking up otherworldly stats. She was the No. 1 overall draft pick for the Phoenix Mercury coming out of college in 2013, and she’s become a WNBA champion and multitime Olympic gold medalist since she turned professional.

So, she’s a big deal. And now there seems to be hope that she could be returning sooner rather than later. ESPN reported Griner’s allies back home, including her fiancée, feel more optimistic than ever about her potential release after the U.S. negotiated the return of another American detained in Russia, Trevor Reed, last week.

With the current volatility of U.S.-Russia relations, and with Russia’s attack on Ukraine showing no end in sight, it’s entirely possible Griner’s return is more out of reach than it seems. But for the time being — and certainly compared to weeks past — it feels as if the tides might be changing.