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WNBA star Brittney Griner arrested in Russia on drug charges

Griner arrested in February at a Moscow airport after Russian authorities said her luggage contained vape cartridges.

Brittney Griner of the United States gestures during a game against Australia at Saitama Super Arena in their Tokyo 2020 Olympic women's basketball quarterfinal game in Saitama, Japan
Griner, 31, is a seven-time all-star center for the Phoenix Mercury of the Women's National Basketball Association [File: Brian Snyder/Reuters]

US basketball authorities have said that an American star basketball player being held in Moscow on narcotics charges is two-time Olympic champion Brittney Griner.

The arrest came as tensions between Moscow and the West have soared over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

The Russian Federal Customs Service said in a statement on Saturday that the person had won two Olympic gold medals with the United States without releasing the player’s name. It added that an inspection of hand luggage carried by a US citizen who arrived on a flight from New York in February “confirmed the presence of ‘vapes’ (and) a liquid with a specific smell”.

It said an expert had determined that the liquid was the narcotic cannabis oil. The customs service said the detained woman faces a potential jail term of five to 10 years.

US basketball authorities made clear that the woman was all-star Griner. The 31-year-old is a WNBA championship with the Phoenix Mercury and a national championship at Baylor. She is a seven-time All-Star.

The news comes as the State Department issued on Saturday a “do not travel” advisory for Russia because of its invasion of Ukraine and urged all US citizens to depart immediately, citing factors including “the potential for harassment against US citizens by Russian government security officials” and “the Embassy’s limited ability to assist” Americans in Russia.

USA Basketball, the sport’s governing body in the US, said on Twitter that it was “aware of and closely monitoring the legal situation facing Brittney Griner in Russia”.

It added: “Brittney has always handled herself with the utmost professionalism during her long tenure with USA Basketball and her safety and well-being are our primary concerns.”

The team issued a statement echoing the language of USA Basketball and adding, “We love and support Brittney, and at this time our main concern is her safety, physical and mental health, and her safe return home.”

At 6-feet-9 (2.06 meters), she is the only woman in US college history to score 2,000 points and block 500 shots.

Many WNBA athletes spend the American off-season playing in European leagues, including the Russian and Ukrainian leagues.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies