A United States diplomat in Moscow has been able to visit detained US basketball star Brittney Griner, the Department of State said, finding her in “good condition” after several weeks in Russian custody.
Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and All-Star centre in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), was detained at the airport in the Russian capital in mid-February on charges of carrying vape cartridges that contained cannabis oil in her luggage.
Her detention comes at a time of heightened tensions between Russia and the US over the continuing Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the administration of US President Joe Biden has been pushing for access to Griner.
“An official from our embassy has been granted consular access to Brittney Griner. We were able to check on her condition,” Department of State spokesman Ned Price said on Wednesday.
“Our official found Brittney Griner to be in good condition and we will continue to do everything we can to see to it that she is treated fairly throughout this ordeal,” he added.
Griner, 31, was in Russia to play club basketball before the US season resumed, a common practice for players, who can earn much higher salaries in foreign leagues than on domestic teams. She played in Russia for the last seven years in the winter, earning more than $1m per season — more than quadruple her WNBA salary.
Russian media reported last week that her detention was extended until May 19. She faces up to 10 years in prison.
Ekaterina Kalugina of the regional Public Monitoring Commission, a state-backed panel in Russia that monitors prisoners’ conditions, told the TASS news agency that Griner was sharing a cell with two other female detainees accused of narcotics offences.
Griner’s cellmates spoke English and were helping her to communicate with staff at the pretrial 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 six-foot 9-inch (206cm) Griner. “The beds in the cell are clearly intended for a person of lesser height.”
Meanwhile, Washington has so far kept a low profile on her case amid fears Griner may be used as a pawn in its dispute with Moscow over the war in Ukraine.
“Whatever the outcome of her case, which is ongoing, there is every reason to fear she has become a pawn in the larger standoff between two superpowers,” The Washington Post newspaper’s editorial board wrote on Tuesday, warning that the Russian judicial system “is a hostile and dubious forum for … Griner to find justice”.
The board also wrote, “The fact that Ms. Griner is gay — she is the first openly gay athlete to be endorsed by Nike — is cause for even deeper worry given that LGBTQ people face open hostility and repression from Russian authorities.”
We cannot ignore the fact that if Brittney Griner wasn’t a Black woman, it would be plastered across the news that she is being held as a political prisoner in Russia.
Free Brittney Griner.
— Cori Bush (@CoriBush) March 17, 2022
While observers have noted the sensitivity of Griner’s situation – and her wife, Cherelle Griner’s call for privacy as the family works to get her home safely – some also have questioned why the detention of one of basketball’s most talented players has drawn such muted responses.
“We cannot ignore the fact that if Brittney Griner wasn’t a Black woman, it would be plastered across the news that she is being held as a political prisoner in Russia,” US Congresswoman Cori Bush wrote last week on Twitter. “Free Brittney Griner.”
The WNBA said on Wednesday that it continued to work with government officials and others to get her home safely.
“This continues to be a complex situation that is extremely difficult for Brittney, her family and all who are hoping for a swift resolution,” the league said in a statement.
Griner’s team, the Phoenix Mercury, also said in a separate statement in early March that it was “closely monitoring” the situation. “We remain in constant contact with her family, her representation, the WNBA and NBA. We love and support Brittney and at this time our main concern is her safety, physical and mental health, and her safe return home.”