The U.S. State Department determined Russia “wrongfully detained” WNBA star Brittney Griner when she was arrested in February, an official said in a statement to Fox News Digital on Tuesday.
Griner was arrested in February after Russian officials claimed a search of her luggage revealed vape cartridges containing oil derived from cannabis. Griner could face up to a decade in prison if she’s convicted. She’s expected to have a hearing in Russia on May 19.
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Brittney Griner is pictured in an undated photo after her arrest.
(Russian State TV)
“The welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad is among the highest priorities of the U.S government,” a State Department spokesperson said. “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.”
Fox News Digital also confirmed Bill Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico and U.S. ambassador during the Clinton administration, agreed to help work on the Griner case. Richardson helped secure the release of American journalist Danny Fenster from a Burmese prison in November.
Griner’s family requested Richardson and the Richardson Center to work on her behalf to secure her return to the U.S.
ESPN first reported the reclassification of Griner’s status.
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Brittney Griner of the Mercury reacts to a foul call in the Chicago Sky game at Footprint Center on Oct. 10, 2021, in Phoenix, Arizona.
(Mike Mattina/Getty Images)
Griner’s agent didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment from Fox News Digital.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in March that an official from the U.S. Embassy was able to see the WNBA star, who was said to be “in good condition.” The Russian government allowed the U.S. to give consular access to Griner weeks after her arrest was reported.
Last month, the State Department responded to a letter from Reps. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., and Burgess Owens, R-Utah, calling on the Biden administration to send a message to Russian President Vladimir Putin, letting him know Americans will not be made political pawns in the midst of the country’s war on Ukraine. The letter on March 10, which Fox News Digital obtained exclusively, expressed concerns about Griner.
Fox News Digital obtained the State Department’s response sent to Donalds’ office more than a month later.
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“One of the Department of State’s top priorities is to provide assistance to U.S. citizens who are incarcerated or detained abroad. The Department understands your concern regarding Ms. Griner’s detention,” read the letter, dated April 14.
“On February 17, customs police at a Moscow airport detained Ms. Griner, alleging that she was smuggling narcotics. Ms. Griner has had consistent access to her legal team. She is currently in pre-trial detention outside of Moscow. In a hearing on March 17, the Russian court extended Ms. Griner’s detention until May 17. U.S. Embassy Moscow’s consular chief was permitted to visit Ms. Griner on March 23. Ms. Griner is doing as well as can be expected.”
Brittney Griner shoots during a preliminary round against Nigeria at the 2020 Summer Olympics, on July 27, 2021, in Saitama, Japan.
(AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)
It was unclear why the State Department shift was made, but it comes after a prisoner swap between the two countries. Russia exchanged jailed U.S. Marine Trevor Reed for Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was serving a 20-year federal sentence for conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the U.S.
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Experts have said that with Russia’s victory day celebrations only days away, Putin will likely ramp up Russia’s propaganda machine in order to cover up the fact it’s losing on the battlefield in its efforts to topple the Ukraine government in Kyiv.
Ryan Gaydos is the sports editor for Fox News and Fox Business. Story tips can be sent to Ryan.Gaydos@fox.com.