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Russia arrests Brittney Griner; Blinken promises to help all Americans detained there

WNBA star Brittney Griner's case is one of three high-profile American detentions in Russia.
Eric Gay
WNBA star Brittney Griner's case is one of three high-profile American detentions in Russia.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States is working to free Americans in Russian custody, and he urged other Americans in Russia to leave the country.

He did not mention WNBA star Brittney Griner by name, but referred to her detention. Griner, who plays for both the Phoenix Mercury and Russian basketball club UMMC Ekaterinburg, was arrested at a Moscow-area airport and accused of transporting drugs.

The WNBA and the Mercury acknowledged the detention on Saturday, but it is unclear when she was arrested.

"There's only so much I can say given the privacy considerations at this point," Blinken said Sunday alongside Moldovan President Maia Sandu in Chisinau. "Whenever an American is detained anywhere in the world, we, of course, stand ready to provide every possible assistance, and that includes in Russia."

The Department of State's consular service will visit detained Americans, help them get legal representation and ensure that prisoners are receiving appropriate medical care, but it cannotprovide its own legal assistance or assert the American's innocence to a court.

Blinken noted two other Americans detained in Russia: Former Marines Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed. Whelan was arrested in 2018 and sentenced to 16 yearsin prison for espionage. He had pleaded not guilty.

Reed was convicted in 2020 for intentionally endangering the lives of police and sentenced to nine years in jail. Reed has said he was drunk the night of the event and does not remember it. Reed lost an appeal in June 2021, and his sentence was upheld.

U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan said President Biden brought up both men's cases with President Vladimir Putin when the two met in person last year. Blinken said Sunday that both of the men are "unjustly detained."

The Mercury, Griner's American team, said in a statement Saturday that it was "aware of and closely monitoring the situation with Brittney Griner in Russia. We remain in constant contact with her family, her representation, the WNBA and the NBA."

Griner is one of the WNBA's most dominant players. She has recorded a league-high 17 dunks in regular-season games, by the end of the 2021 season. Griner won the 2014 WNBA championship with Phoenix and a gold medal at both the Rio and Tokyo Olympics.

Blinken said Sunday that the U.S. is urging Americans to leave Russia, but it is not closing its embassy in Moscow.

"In times like these, it's important that we maintain our diplomatic contacts, that we maintain the diplomatic support, particularly support that we can provide to Americans who may need it," he said.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: March 6, 2022 at 11:00 PM CST
A previous version of this story included outdated statistics about Brittney Griner's career. She has recorded 17 regular-season dunks and has won two Olympic gold medals at both the Rio and Tokyo Games.
Peter Granitz