Concerns in the U.S. over the wellbeing of Brittney Griner are growing as Russia extends the pre-trial detention of the WNBA star. The extension comes amid escalating tensions between the U.S. and Russia over the invasion of Ukraine.
Russia media reported on Thursday that Griner’s pre-trial detention was extended until May 19 by the Khimki court of the Moscow region. The two-time Olympic gold medalist faces drug charges for allegedly smuggling hashish oil last month into Russia.
Griner, a Houston native, faces up to ten years in prison, according to Russian media reports.
Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Tex., whose district includes parts of Houston, has called for the athlete’s release and told Nightline in an interview on Thursday that she wrote a letter to President Joe Biden and met with him regarding Griner’s case.
“I did write a letter to the president of the United States and met with him on this issue of Ms. Griner, again recognizing the need for privacy and respect of our family members, and the need for a genuine support from across the nation,” Jackson-Lee said.
“But I feel that the government is aware and ready to move on helping Brittney. And we are encouraging, as a member of Congress, to have the government move as swiftly, as profoundly, as strongly as it can do – without, in any way, undermining what is best for Brittney,” the congresswoman added.
The U.S. State Department issued a statement Friday demanding access to Griner.
“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 U.S. citizen detainees in Russia, including those in pre-trial detention, as Brittney Griner is,” it said.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price told ABC News Live on Thursday that U.S. officials have been in “constant contact” with Griner’s legal team, but are “concerned” because officials from the U.S. embassy in Moscow have been unable to meet with the WNBA star since her detention to “evaluate the conditions … in which she is being detained and to provide all forms of support.”
“The Russians have not yet permitted us to do so,” Price said. “The Russians are obligated to permit, to allow this type of consular access under the Vienna Convention. We’re going to continue to insist that they allow us access to Brittney Griner just as we be permitted access to all Americans who are detained in Russia.”
The extension of Griner’s detention comes during a volatile time for U.S.-Russia relations as Russian President Vladimir Putin escalates attacks on Ukraine.
Biden held a video call with Chinese China’s President Xi Jinping on Friday amid concerns that China could help Russia in its invasion of Ukraine.
The U.S. also imposed a wave of new sanctions on Russia, including personal sanctions on Putin and some of his close associates, but has continued to oppose a no-fly zone and the deployment of U.S. troops to fight Russia in Ukraine.
Biden labeled Putin a “war criminal” during a press conference at the White house on Wednesday amid a State Department review of whether the U.S. considers Russia’s attacks on Ukrainian civilians a war crime. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Thursday that he personally believes war crimes have been committed in Ukraine.
Rep. Jackson-Lee said that the conflict between the U.S. and Russia over the invasion of Ukraine should not impact Griner’s chances of being released.
“You know, there are international protocols that should be held in spite of conflicts,” the congresswoman said.
“This is a major conflict. This is a major act of violence. This is an invasion. Brittney Griner had nothing to do with that,” she added.
Griner was detained in Russia in mid-February at a Moscow area airport for allegedly having vape cartridges in her luggage containing hashish oil — an illegal substance in Russia, the Russian Federal Customs Service announced earlier this month.
Although RFCS initially did not reveal Griner’s name, she was identified on video released by Russian officials showing her going through security at the Sheremetyevo International Airport near Moscow.
“We are aware of the situation with Brittney Griner in Russia and are in close contact with her, her legal representation in Russia, her family, her teams, and the WNBA and NBA,” Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, told ABC News in a statement on March 5. “As this is an ongoing legal matter, we are not able to comment further on the specifics of her case but can confirm that as we work to get her home, her mental and physical health remain our primary concern.”
Griner is a seven-time WNBA All-Star, who has been playing for the Phoenix Mercury since 2013 and was reportedly in Russia to play basketball in an overseas league.
The Phoenix Mercury said in a statement on March 5 that the team is in contact with Griner’s family, representatives and the WNBA and are closely monitoring her case.
“We love and support Brittney and at this time our main concern is her safety, physical and mental health, and her safe return home,” the Phoenix Mercury said.
The WNBA expressed support for Griner, saying in a statement earlier this month that she has the league’s “full support and our main priority is her swift and safe return to the United States.”
ABC News’ Conor Finnegan, Libby Cathey, Kandis Mascall, Matthew Fuhrman, Miles Cohen and Tanya Stukalova contributed to this report.