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Brittney Griner has been held by Russia since February after authorities said she was carrying a vape with cannabis.

The US Department of State has determined that Russia has “wrongfully detained” American basketball player Brittney Griner, an official said, in a move that means the United States will work more aggressively to secure her release.

A State Department official told ESPN on Tuesday that envoy for hostage affairs Roger Carstens will lead a team tasked with securing Griner’s release.

“The Department of State has determined that the Russian Federation has wrongfully detained US citizen Brittney Griner,” the official said. “With this determination, the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens will lead the interagency team for securing Brittney Griner’s release.”

Brittney Griner
Russian authorities said Griner’s crime could carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison [File: Rick Scuteri/AP]

Griner was detained at an airport in February after Russian authorities said a search of her bag revealed vape cartridges containing oil derived from cannabis. Since then, US officials had stopped short of classifying the Phoenix Mercury player as wrongfully detained and said instead that their focus was on ensuring that she had access in jail to American consular affairs officials.

The United States has complained that Russia does not grant regular access to Americans detained there, although consular access to Griner was granted and a consular officer visited her on March 23, a US State Department spokesperson said in a statement.

“The U.S. government will continue to undertake efforts to provide appropriate support to Ms. Griner,” the statement said.

“Brittney has been detained for 75 days and our expectation is that the White House do whatever is necessary to bring her home,” said Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas.

The latest development signifies a shift in supervision of her case that is focused on negotiating for the release of hostages and other Americans deemed wrongfully detained.

Griner has not been charged. In March her detention was extended until May 19.

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It was unclear what prompted the US shift in Griner’s case, though President Joe Biden’s administration had been under pressure from members of Congress and others to make Griner’s release a priority.

The move comes amid worsening relations between the US and Russia following Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine. The US, joined by other Western countries, has responded by imposing sanctions on Russia.

The US last week secured the release of Marine veteran Trevor Reed as part of a prisoner swap that also resulted in a convicted Russian drug trafficker being freed from prison in the US.

Besides Griner, another American regarded as unjustly detained in Russia is Paul Whelan, a corporate security executive from Michigan who was arrested in December 2018 while visiting for a friend’s wedding and was later sentenced to 16 years in prison on espionage-related charges his family says are bogus.

ESPN first reported the classification in Griner’s case on Monday.

Meanwhile, the WNBA announced Tuesday that it would honour Griner with a floor decal and allow the Mercury to pay her without it counting against the team’s cap. The decal will feature Griner’s initials, BG, as well as her jersey number, 42. All 12 teams will have the decal on their home courts starting with the season opener Friday night. The Mercury open their season at home that night against the Las Vegas Aces.

Source: Al Jazeera

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