US demands Russia allow access to detained Brittney Griner

Women's basketball player is in Russian detention on allegations of drug smuggling

WNBA player Brittney Griner flexes after making a basket during a quarterfinal round game at the 2020 Summer Olympics. AP

On Friday, the US stepped up its push for consular access to Brittney Griner, the WNBA star who has been detained in Russia on allegations of drug smuggling.

A member of a Russian state-backed prison monitoring group said Griner was faring well behind bars.

Ekaterina Kalugina told The Associated Press on Friday that she visited Griner on Monday at the pretrial detention facility outside of Moscow where she is being held and spoke to her with the help of a cellmate who served as an interpreter.

“Her physical condition is fine, she’s holding up fine and I’d even say that she is fairly calm and isn’t anxious,” Ms Kalugina said of the Phoenix Mercury star, whose legal troubles comes amid tension between Russia and the US over the invasion of Ukraine.

Ms Kalugina is a member of the public monitoring commission that visits prisons in that part of Russia.

Such commissions, which operate throughout the country, position themselves as independent but rarely challenge Russian authorities on major issues.

Griner’s lawyers have been visiting her regularly and have brought her care packages that include food and personal items, but she hadn’t met with a US consul yet, Ms Kalugina said.

The US State Department issued a statement on Friday demanding access Ms Griner, who plays professionally in Russia during the WNBA offseason.

“We are closely engaged on this case and in frequent contact with Brittney Griner’s legal team. We insist the Russian government provide consular access to all US citizen detainees in Russia, including those in pretrial detention, as Brittney Griner is,” it said.

“We have repeatedly asked for consular access to these detainees and have consistently been denied access,” it added.

The player was detained after arriving at a Moscow airport, reportedly in mid-February, when Russian authorities said a search of her luggage had revealed vape cartridges that reportedly contained oil derived from cannabis, which could carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

A sign reading 'Free Brittney Griner' is seen on a television camera during a game in Henderson, Nevada. AFP

Russian state news agency Tass reported on Thursday that a court had extended Griner’s pretrial detention to May 19.

Ms Kalugina said that when she met Griner, she made no complaints about her treatment at the facility and said she was getting an hour a day to spend in an exercise yard.

Griner’s legal team has been quietly seeking her release and has declined to speak out about the case since her arrest was made public earlier this month.

Of the thousands of US citizens arrested and jailed in prisons abroad, a small subset are designated by the US government as wrongfully detained — a category that affords their cases an extra level of government attention and places them under the auspices of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs at the State Department.

The US government has not yet put Griner’s case in that category.

And Griner is not the only American detained in Russia.

Marine veteran Trevor Reed was sentenced to nine years in prison in 2020 on charges alleging that he assaulted police officers in Moscow. Michigan corporate security executive Paul Whelan is serving a 16-year sentence on espionage charges that his family and the US government have said are false.

US officials have publicly called for Moscow to release them.

Updated: March 18, 2022, 10:47 PM