A department official confirmed Tuesday that Brittney Griner, who is being held by the Russian government, is being wrongfully detained by the U.S. Department of State.
The change to official classification means that Griner's case will be handled by Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, in coordination with the State Department's Office of Consular Affairs, the official said. The U.S. will be more aggressive in its efforts to secure her release because of the new classification. The news was first reported by ESPN.
The Phoenix Mercury star was arrested in February on drug charges after a search of her luggage at the Sheremetyevo airport near Moscow found vape cartridges containing oil derived from cannabis. In March Russian officials said Griner's detention was extended until May 19th.
The maximum sentence could be up to 10 years in prison.
The State Department will continue to make efforts to provide appropriate support to Ms. Griner. A department spokeswoman said Tuesday that the welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad is one of the highest priorities of the U.S. government.
Under the 2020 Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act, the State Department is required to classify whether U.S. detainees are being held unlawfully or wrongfully overseas. Carstens' office is responsible for handling such cases.
A person close to the situation previously told NBC News that Griner is doing OK and has met with her Russian legal team several times a week since she was arrested.
Ekaterina Kalugina, a member of the Public Monitoring Commission, told the Russian state news agency TASS that Griner is being held with two inmates who had no previous convictions and is charged with drug-related articles. Griner, 31, is a center for Phoenix Mercury and has won a WNBA championship with the team as well as two Olympic gold medals. She is a seven-time All Star. Griner has played in Russia for the last seven years during the winter. She last played for her Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg on January 29 before the league took a two-week break in early February for the FIBA World Cup qualifying tournaments.
Griner's wife, Cherelle Griner, commented on Brittney's detainment in an Instagram post last week, after Trevor Reed, a former U.S. Marine, was released from a Russian jail after nearly three years in a prison.
My heart is overflowing with joy for The Reed Family as I do everything in my power to get BG home. I do not know them personally, but I do know the pain of having your loved one detained in a foreign country. She wrote that the level of pain is constant and can only be remedied by a safe return home. That day is today for the Reed family. Welcome Home Trevor, sending love to you and your family on this special day.