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US says basketball star ‘wrongfully detained’ in Russia

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Brittney Griner of the Phoenix Mercury, who has since been detained in Russia, puts a shot over Azura Stevens of the Chicago Sky during the 2021 WNBA Finals in Phoenix in October 2021./AFP
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May 04, 2022 - 07:00 AM

WASHINGTON — The United States said Tuesday that Russia has unjustly detained basketball star Brittney Griner, as her league announced plans to honor her at all venues for the start of the season.

More than two months after she was seized amid soaring tensions over Ukraine, the State Department said that her case was being turned over to Roger Carstens, the US special envoy in charge of hostages.

“The Department of State has determined that the Russian Federation has wrongfully detained US citizen Brittney Griner,” a State Department spokesperson said.

Calling American citizens’ safety “among the highest priorities of the US government,” the spokesperson said the State Department would “provide appropriate support” to Griner.

Washington had earlier been granted consular access but had stopped short of commenting on the nature of her detention.

Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and WNBA champion, was detained at Moscow’s airport on February 17 on charges of carrying in her luggage vape cartridges with cannabis oil, illegal in Russia.

The arrest came days before Russia defied US warnings and invaded Ukraine, prompting Western powers to impose sweeping sanctions and send military aid to Kyiv.

The WNBA, the Women’s National Basketball Association, announced that all 12 venues would feature Griner’s initials and jersey number 42 emblazoned on the sidelines when the new season tips off Friday.

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

“We continue to work on bringing Brittney home and are appreciative of the support the community has shown BG and her family during this extraordinarily challenging time,” she said.

The State Department finding comes nearly a week after the United States and Russia exchanged prisoners, a scene reminiscent of the Cold War.

Russia in the last exchange freed Trevor Reed, a former US Marine accused of drunkenly fighting with police.

The United States also says Russia has unjustly detained Paul Whelan, a former security official at a vehicle parts company who was sentenced to 16 years in prison on espionage charges.

Griner, 31, is considered among the greatest female basketball players with her skill at “dunking” a ball.

She was playing club basketball in Russia before the resumption of the US season, a common practice for American stars seeking additional income.

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