The United States said Russia wrongly arrested basketball star Brittney Griner when her league announced plans to honor her at all venues at the start of the WNBA season.
More than two months after she was arrested amid rising tensions in Ukraine, the US State Department said Griner’s case would be turned over to Roger Carstens, the US special envoy in charge of hostages.
“The State Department has determined that the Russian Federation wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Brittney Griner,” a State Department spokesman said.
Watch live coverage of the 2022 NBA Playoffs with ESPN on Kayo, including all games from the Conference Finals and The Finals. New to Kayo? Try it now for 14 days for free >
The spokesman called the safety of American citizens “one of the highest priorities of the U.S. government” and said the State Department would “provide reasonable assistance” to Griner.
Washington had previously been granted consular access but had not commented on the nature of their detention.
Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and WNBA champion, was arrested at Moscow Airport on February 17 on charges of having in her luggage e-cigarette cartridges containing cannabis oil, which are illegal in Russia.
The arrest came days before Russia, defying US warnings, invaded Ukraine, prompting Western powers to impose sweeping sanctions and send military aid to Kyiv.
The WNBA announced that all 12 venues would have Griner’s initials and jersey number 42 emblazoned on the touchline when the new season ends Friday.
“As the 2022 season begins, we keep Brittney at the forefront of what we do through the basketball game and in the community,” WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in a statement.
“We continue to work to bring Brittney home and are grateful for the support the community has shown to BG and her family during this exceptionally challenging time.”
The State Department’s finding comes nearly a week after the United States and Russia exchanged prisoners, in a scene reminiscent of the Cold War.
Russia, in the latest exchange, freed Trevor Reed, a former US Marine accused of drunken fighting with police.
The United States also says Russia wrongly arrested Paul Whelan, a former security guard at an auto parts company who was sentenced to 16 years in prison on espionage charges.
Griner, 31, is considered one of the best basketball players in the world.
She played club basketball in Russia before the US season resumed, a common practice for American stars seeking extra income.