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State Department officials met with members of Brittney Griner’s WNBA team on Monday to discuss the star’s months-long detention in Russia, which the U.S. government called a “wrongful detainment” last month in an apparent shift toward more aggressively negotiating for her release.
Phoenix Mercury players, coaches and staffers, as well as employees of the WNBA Players Association, were encouraged by U.S. officials to “keep speaking her name, to keep holding them accountable,” Mercury player Brianna Turner said in a statement on the team’s Twitter account following the meeting.
Griner, a seven-time WNBA all-star for the Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, has been in Russian custody since February, when she was arrested at an airport outside Moscow. Russian authorities allege that she illegally brought vape cartridges containing hashish oil into the country, a crime that could carry a prison sentence of up to 10 years.
The U.S. government has been pushing for regular meetings with Griner, whose pretrial detention was extended last month. At that time, State Department spokesman Ned Price said she was “doing as well as can be expected under what can only be described as exceedingly difficult circumstances.”
Brittney Griner ‘wrongfully detained,’ U.S. says, signaling strategy shift
The Monday morning meeting with the team was attended by U.S. officials who specialize in hostage negotiations and cases of wrongfully detained Americans, the Associated Press reported. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has also recently spoken with Griner’s wife.
At the time of her arrest, Griner, 31, was returning to the Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg, for which she plays during the WNBA offseason. Her detention cast a pall over the start of the WNBA season last month.
“We’re here to do whatever we can to amplify and keep BG at the forefront, which is more important than any basketball game and anything else that’s going on in our lives,” star player Diana Taurasi said in a statement posted on Twitter by the Mercury after the meeting. “We want BG to come home as soon as possible, it’s number one on our list.”
The Mercury are in D.C. to play against the Washington Mystics on Tuesday night. Their meeting with the State Department lasted an hour and took place at the team’s hotel, ESPN reported.
Head coach Vanessa Nygaard noted in a Twitter statement Monday that it had been 116 days since Griner was detained: “She’s our teammate, she’s an American and we want her back home.”
Dave Sheinin and Cindy Boren contributed to this report.