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The U.S. has now classified WNBA star Brittney Griner as "wrongfully detained" by the Russian government, a State Department spokesperson confirmed to Yahoo Sports on Tuesday.
The formal change in designation is a significant development because it opens a new path to secure Griner's freedom. Instead of waiting for her drug smuggling case to play out in the Russian legal system, the U.S. government will now actively seek to negotiate her return.
"Our expectation is that the White House do whatever is necessary to bring her home," Griner's agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, said in a statement.
Roger Carstens, the U.S. government's top hostage negotiator, will lead an inter-agency team in charge of securing Griner's release, the State Department spokesperson told Yahoo Sports. Carstens, a U.S. diplomat and retired U.S. Army Special Forces officer, was part of the team that last week negotiated a hostage exchange that resulted in the return of Trevor Reed, a former Marine detained in Russia for the past two years.
The release of Reed was notable for Griner because it suggests that there is still an open line of communication between U.S. and Russian officials despite escalating tensions over the war in Ukraine. Tom Firestone, who spent 14 years as the resident legal adviser at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, cautioned that "arranging a prisoner exchange is always a very difficult task" but acknowledged that Reed's return was encouraging for Griner.
"I think it shows that despite the current political relationship between Russia and the United States, negotiations are still going on behind the scenes," Firestone told Yahoo Sports. "That provides hope that the government may be able to obtain the release of other Americans who are detained in Russia,"
Should relations between U.S. and Russian officials deteriorate further, Griner's team has another option. International hostage negotiator Bill Richardson has also agreed to work on Griner's case at the request of her family, Richardson Center executive director Mickey Bergman confirmed on Tuesday to Yahoo Sports.
Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has worked privately for years on behalf of families to negotiate the release of hostages and wrongfully detained individuals around the world. He and his non-profit organization do not work for the U.S. government but typically keep the State Department informed of their efforts.
Bergman told Yahoo Sports in March that families have previously sought Richardson's help when a loved one is being held somewhere with poor or nonexistent relations with the U.S. In those instances, Bergman said, the Richardson Center will engage directly with the captors and try to move the issue from the political to the humanitarian realm.
"While governments certainly have more authority," Bergman said, "in times like this, when the bilateral relations are so bad, it is sometimes the non-government players who can be effective. That is the space we operate in."
Griner has been behind bars since Feb. 17 when she flew into a Moscow airport and Russian customs officials allegedly found vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage. She is under investigation for the large-scale transportation of drugs and faces up to 10 years in a Russian prison if convicted.
In Griner’s first preliminary hearing last month, her Russian attorney unsuccessfully challenged the legality of her arrest and failed in attempts to have her transferred to house arrest. The court instead extended the length of her pretrial confinement by up to two months to give investigators more time to build a case against her.
Griner is scheduled to reappear in court on May 19. At that time, investigators could again request more time to gather evidence or declare the case file ready and formally bring charges against her. Griner’s Russian defense attorney would then have the opportunity to object to any evidence that should be suppressed or request the collection of something missing. Only after that would the trial be scheduled.
A consular officer from the U.S. embassy in Moscow visited Griner on March 23, according to a State Department spokesperson, and verified “that she is doing as well as can be expected.” The spokesperson told Yahoo Sports that the State Department is in “frequent contact” with Griner’s legal team but declined to offer specifics regarding where she is being held or the living conditions at her prison.