Russian media reported that the detention of WNBA star Brittney Griner was extended until May 19, a development that could see the two-time Olympic champion being held for at least three months before her case is resolved.
The case of the 31-year-old Griner, one of the most recognizable players in women’s basketball, comes amid heightened tensions between Washington and Moscow over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Griner was detained at a Moscow airport, reportedly in mid-February, after Russian authorities said a search of her luggage revealed vape cartridges allegedly containing oil derived from cannabis, which could carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.
“The court granted the request of the investigation and extended the period of detention of the U.S. citizen Griner until May 19,” the court said, according to the state news agency TASS.
The U.S. Embassy in Moscow did not immediately return calls from The Associated Press seeking comment.
The U.S. State Department has been “doing everything we can to support Brittney Griner to support her family, and to work with them to do everything we can, to see that she is treated appropriately and to seek her release,” spokesman Ned Price said Tuesday at a briefing. He cited privacy considerations in not giving out more details.
Ekaterina Kalugina of the regional Public Monitoring Commission, a state-backed panel in Russia that monitors prisoners’ conditions, told TASS that Griner was sharing a cell with two other female detainees accused of narcotics offences.
Griner’s cellmates spoke English and were helping her to communicate with staff at the pretrial detention facility and to obtain books, Kalugina said.
“The only objective problem has turned out to be the basketball player’s height,” TASS quoted Kalugina as saying of the 6-foot-9 Griner. “The beds in the cell are clearly intended for a person of lesser height.”
Griner has won two Olympic gold medals with the United States, a WNBA championship with the Phoenix Mercury and a national championship at Baylor. She is a seven-time all-star. The WNBA season opens May 6.
She was one of a dozen WNBA players who played in Russia or Ukraine this past season. All except Griner have left since Russia invaded Ukraine.
Griner has played in Russia for the past seven years in the winter, earning more than US$1-million a season – more than quadruple her WNBA salary. She last played for her Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg on Jan. 29 before the league took a two-week break in early February for the FIBA World Cup qualifying tournaments. She was arrested in Moscow upon returning to Russia.
Former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton joined a growing contingent of family, friends and officials calling for her release with a “Free Brittney” tweet Wednesday.
It’s unclear how much progress was being made in the case because Griner’s group has been trying to work quietly for her release and declining to talk publicly since her arrest was made public earlier this month.
Griner’s wife, Cherelle, thanked everyone for their support but also has said little else on social media.
“Everyone’s getting the strategy of say less and push more privately behind the scenes,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert told the AP on Wednesday. “It’s the strategy you get from the State Department and administration. It’s our No. 1 priority in talking with her agent and strategists.”
The U.S. State Department has cited privacy considerations for not releasing more information about Griner’s situation despite the intense public interest in the case. Indeed, federal law prohibits U.S. officials from providing personal information about any American citizen arrested or otherwise detained overseas without their express written consent.
There are very limited exceptions to the rules in the 1974 Privacy Act that also forbids the public release of passport records of U.S. citizens. One exception is when the subject of an inquiry has signed a document known as a Privacy Act Waiver that allows the State Department in Washington and diplomats at U.S. embassies and consulates abroad to discuss specific information.
Griner is not the only American currently detained in Russia. Marine veteran Trevor Reed was sentenced to nine years in prison in 2020 on charges he assaulted police officers in Moscow and Michigan corporate security executive Paul Whelan is serving a 16-year sentence on espionage charges that his family and the U.S. government have said are false. U.S. officials have publicly called for Moscow to release them.