Phoenix Mercury's Brittney Griner to be detained in Russia until May: report
PHOENIX - WNBA star Brittney Griner's detention has been extended by at least two more months after she was taken into Russian custody on drug charges, reports say.
"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 TASS.
The Phoenix Mercury player had been detained at a Moscow airport after a drug-sniffing dog reportedly found vapes with cannabis oil in her luggage.
Calls to ‘Free Brittney’ grow; U.S. officials demand access
As the WNBA star remains in detention in Russia, there are growing calls for her to be released.
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.
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."
On March 18, State Department officials issued a statement to demand access to Griner.
"We are closely engaged on this case and in frequent contact with Brittney Griner’s legal team. We insist the Russian government provide consular access to all U.S. citizen detainees in Russia, including those in pre-trial detention, as Brittney Griner is," a portion of the statement read. "We have repeatedly asked for consular access to these detainees and have consistently been denied access."
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.
Meanwhile, a U.S. Congressman says officials are trying to keep Griner from being used as a political pawn.
"I have to be careful of what I can say. We know she’s OK. I also know we want to get her home as soon as possible. We want her to be treated no differently than anyone else, not as part of the larger geopolitical context of what’s going on," said Rep. Colin Allred (D-TX). "She's not a symbol, a hostage, or anything like that. Clearly, there's a lot going on in the world, a lot going on between us and Russia, but Brittney should not be swept up in that."
Griner's arrest comes amid heightened U.S.-Russian tensions
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.
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.
Griner has been playing on the Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg in the Euroleague during the WNBA's offseason since 2015.
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 offenses.
Griner's cellmates spoke English and were helping her to communicate with staff at the pre-trial 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."
TEMPE, ARIZONA - OCTOBER 03: Brittney Griner #42 of the Phoenix Mercury during Game Three of the 2021 WNBA semifinals at Desert Financial Arena on October 03, 2021 in Tempe, Arizona. The Mercury defeated the Aces 87-60. (Photo by Christian Petersen/G
Griner has won two Olympic gold medals with the U.S., 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 last seven years in the winter, earning over $1 million per 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.
In convicted, Griner could face up to 10 years in prison in Russia.
ASU law professor weighs in
Legal experts say Russia's justice system, unlike the U.S., takes a 'guilty until proven innocent' approach/
"In Russia, once you’re charged, there’s a 99% likelihood of being convicted, so we’re really into this situation where I hope diplomatic measures will work in finding the truth and bringing Brittney Griner home," said Valena Beety, a law professor at Arizona State University that has written books about wrongfully convicted women.
Beety believes Griner's identity and race placed a role in the drug charges against her.
"She would be a better target than a straight white man for making those kinds of charges, particularly being a woman of color and being a woman of color who’s married to another woman, which is frowned upon in Russia," said Beety. "I think all of those make her more likely to be a target."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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