US government says Brittney Griner was wrongfully detained in Russia

SAITAMA, JAPAN – AUGUST 06: Brittney Griner #15 of Team USA watches Serbia during the second half of a women’s basketball semifinal match on day fourteen of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in Saitama Super Arena on August 06, 2021 in Saitama, Japan. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

By Jennifer Hansler and Wayne Sterling, CNN

(CNN) – The State Department has now classified WNBA star Brittney Griner as wrongfully detained in Russia and her case is being handled by the Office of the President’s Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs (SPEHA) Roger Carstens, a State Department official confirmed to CNN Tuesday.

The SPEHA office leads and coordinates the government’s diplomatic efforts to secure the release of Americans wrongfully detained abroad, and moving to their office means more flexibility in efforts to negotiate his freedom, as they have no necessarily have to wait for the Russian legal proceedings to play.

Carstens and his team played a major role in the release of US citizen and Navy veteran Trevor Reed from Russia last week.

“As for our efforts to free Americans, the President’s special envoy for hostage affairs, Ambassador Carstens, he will go anywhere, he will talk to anyone if it means we are able to come home to an American, to reunite that American with her or her family,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said Monday.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday that the decision to classify Griner as wrongfully detained was made “in coordination with the hostage negotiator.” [Carstens] and the State Department.

“But generally, and I don’t think that will change, in order to allow the space to have an outcome that we all want and desire, which is to bring her home, and all Americans detained or wrongfully detained, we usually don’t. I don’t talk about it much,” she said.

Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, said in a statement, “Brittney has been detained for 75 days and we expect the White House to do whatever is necessary to bring her home.”

In addition to the work of the Biden administration, the Richardson Center, which privately advocates for the families of hostages and detainees and has been involved in bringing Reed home, is also working on behalf of the Griner family to try to secure his release.

“I can confirm that Governor Richardson and the Richardson Center are indeed working on behalf of Brittney’s family to ensure her safe return. Due to ongoing efforts and sensitivities, we are focused on work rather than conversation at this time,” Mickey Bergman, vice president and executive director of the Richardson Center, said in a statement to CNN.

Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and WNBA Phoenix Mercury star, was arrested in February at a Moscow airport and charged by Russian authorities with smuggling large amounts of narcotics, a punishable offense 10 years in prison. .

She plays for Russian powerhouse UMMC Ekaterinburg during the WNBA offseason.

On Tuesday, the WNBA said it would honor seven-time all-star Griner in the 2022 season with his initials and jersey number (42) on the sidelines of the 12 home courts.

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

“We continue to work to bring Brittney home and appreciate the support the community has shown BG and her family during this extraordinarily difficult time.”

Griner will also receive his full WNBA salary, the league said.

Last season, Griner finished second in voting for the Most Valuable Player award. The 6’9″ center led the Mercury to the WNBA Finals, where Phoenix lost to the Chicago Sky in four games.

The WNBA season begins Friday and Phoenix begins its home season against the Las Vegas Aces.

Russian authorities did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment on the State Department’s reclassification of the Griner case.

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