White House puts ‘hostage envoy’ on WNBA star Griner’s case as Russia extends pretrial detention

The United States' Brittney Griner (15) shoots over Japan's Maki Takada (8) during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics Women's Basketball Final at Saitama Super Arena on Aug. 8, 2021, in Saitama, Japan. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

The White House has accused Moscow of “wrongfully” detaining American basketball player Brittney Griner and put its envoy for hostage affairs on the case after a Russian court extended the WNBA star’s pretrial custody since her detention at a Moscow airport in February.

Griner’s lawyer, Aleskandr Boikov, said the two-time Olympic gold medalist and Phoenix Mercury star’s custody was extended by a month by a Khimki court outside Moscow on May 13.

Griner, 31, could face a 10-year jail sentence on possible charges over traces of cannabis or hashish oil in a vape device allegedly uncovered in a security check at Sheremetyevo Airport.

Like a number of WNBA players who augment their salaries by playing in Russia in the off-season, Griner has played for the UMMC team in Yekaterinburg since 2014.

“She is OK,” Boikov said of Griner after the procedural hearing on May 13, at which the court rejected her request for transfer to house arrest.

A U.S. Embassy consular officer who spoke to Griner at the hearing “was able to confirm that Brittney Griner is doing as well as can be expected under what can only be described as exceedingly difficult circumstances,” State Department spokesman Ned Price added.

Price said Washington was watching Griner’s case closely.

The White House said the Russian system wrongfully detained her and it was putting its special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, Roger Carstens, on the case.

Griner’s detention came as Washington was warning of imminent orders by Russian President Vladimir Putin for an all-out invasion of Ukraine, but was not announced until the launch of that war a week later deepened the gulf in U.S.-Russia relations.

Bilateral diplomatic channels are still open.

But there are fears that one of women’s basketball’s winningest players could become a bargaining chip in increasingly rancorous relations, a fact that has contributed to her family and others remaining unusually silent on the case.

Griner is now due to be held until at least June 18 as the Russian investigation continues, according to the court ruling.

Russia and the United States swapped prisoners in April, with Moscow releasing ailing former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed, who was detained in 2019, in exchange for Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was serving a 20-year sentence for drug trafficking.

Russian authorities still hold U.S. citizen Paul Whelan, another former Marine detained in 2018 on subsequent espionage charges he and the U.S. government deny.