MOSCOW >> WNBA star Brittney Griner had her pre-trial detention in Russia extended by one month Friday, her lawyer said.
Alexander Boykov told The Associated Press he thinks the relatively short extension indicated that Griner’s case would go to trial soon. The 31-year-old American basketball player has been in custody for nearly three months.
Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist who plays for the Phoenix Mercury, was detained at a Moscow airport in February after vape cartridges containing oil derived from cannabis were allegedly found in her luggage. She faces drug smuggling charges that carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.
Griner appeared for the brief hearing at a court outside Moscow handcuffed, wearing an orange hoodie and holding her face down. She did not express “any complaints about the detention conditions,” Boykov said.
The Biden administration says Griner is being wrongfully detained. The WNBA and U.S. officials have worked toward her release, without visible progress.
“Today’s news on Brittney Griner was not unexpected, and the WNBA continues to work with the U.S. government to get BG home safely and as soon as possible,” the basketball league said in a statement.
Hours after the extension, the Mercury star’s agent Lindsay Kagawa Colas tweeted that Griner’s team expects the government “to use all options available to immediately and safely bring Griner home.”
State Dept spokesman Ned Price said diplomats from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow spoke with Griner on Friday and reported she “is doing as well as can be expected in these circumstances.”
Russian officials have described Griner’s case as a criminal offense without making any political associations. But Moscow’s war in Ukraine has brought U.S.-Russia relations to the lowest level since the Cold War.
Despite the strain, Russia and the United States carried out an unexpected prisoner exchange last month — trading former Marine Trevor Reed for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot serving a 20-year federal prison sentence for conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the United States.
While the U.S. does not typically embrace such exchanges, it made the deal in part because Yaroshenko had already served a long portion of his sentence.
The Russians may consider Griner someone who could figure into another such exchange.
The State Department last week said it now regards Griner as wrongfully detained, a change in classification that suggests the U.S. government will be more active in trying to secure her release even while the legal case plays out.
The status change places her case under the purview of the department’s Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, which is responsible for negotiating for the release of hostages and Americans considered wrongfully detained.
Also working on the case now is a center led by Bill Richardson, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who helped secure the release of multiple hostages and detainees, including Reed.
It’s not entirely clear why the U.S. government, which for weeks had been more circumspect in its approach, reclassified Griner as a wrongful detainee. But under federal law, there are a number of factors that go into such a characterization, including if the detention is based on being an American or if the detainee has been denied due process
Besides Griner, another American regarded as unjustly detained in Russia is Paul Whelan, a corporate security executive from Michigan. Whelan was arrested in December 2018 while visiting for a friend’s wedding and was later sentenced to 16 years in prison on espionage-related charges his family has said are bogus.