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WNBA star Brittney Griner's detention extended a month after appearance in court, U.S. officials skeptical of negotiations claim

WNBA, Phoenix Mercury

MOSCOW -- The lawyer for Brittney Griner said Friday that the WNBA star's pretrial detention in Russia has been extended by one month.

Alexander Boykov told The Associated Press he believed the relatively short extension of the detention indicated the case would come to trial soon. Griner has been in detention for nearly three months.

At the same time, the Russian state news agency TASS published a story saying there were negotiations between the U.S. and Russia to exchange Griner for a Russian man being held in the United States for financing terrorism. American government officials, speaking to ESPN, expressed skepticism about the reporting, saying it was likely a tactic to pressure the U.S. government.

A U.S. official told ESPN that the report is further validation of why Griner was recently reclassified as being wrongfully detained and evidence that Russia's judicial system is transactional.

"Timing is one of the most important factors I look for; it's one of the clearest ways we can glean intentions in a negotiation," says Dani Gilbert, an assistant professor of military and strategic studies at the U.S. Air Force Academy and an expert in state-sponsored hostage taking. "The fact that they would make that statement at the same time doesn't seem like coincidence. It's consistent with how these negotiations have typically gone.

"Today's news is a sobering reminder that international detention cases are long, winding, frustrating ordeals -- rarely straightforward. We honestly don't know if this is good or bad news. It could mean buying time to work out a swift deal for her release, or it could mean more complications put on the table."

In Moscow on Friday, Griner appeared for the brief hearing handcuffed, her dreadlocks covered in a red hoodie and her face held low.

Boykov said, "We did not receive any complaints about the detention conditions from our client."

Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, was detained at a Moscow airport after vape cartridges containing oil derived from cannabis were allegedly found in her luggage, which could carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

"We do not have a comment on this specific development. As we have stated repeatedly, the Russian system wrongfully detained Ms. Griner," a State Department official said.

"We take our responsibility to assist U.S. citizens seriously, and we will continue to press for fair and transparent treatment for all U.S. citizens when they are subject to legal processes overseas.   

"We are closely engaged on this case and in frequent contact with Ms. Griner's legal team. Diplomats from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow attended the hearing on May 13 and were able to speak with Ms. Griner. She is doing as well as can be expected in these circumstances."

The Biden administration says Griner, 31, is being wrongfully detained. The WNBA and U.S. officials have worked toward her release, without visible progress.

Hours after the extension, the Mercury star's agent Lindsay Kagawa Colas tweeted that Griner's team expects the government "to use all options available to immediately and safely bring Griner home.''

The Russians have described Griner's case as a criminal offense without making any political associations.

But it comes amid Moscow's war in Ukraine that has brought U.S.-Russian relations to the lowest level since the Cold War.

Despite the strain, Russia and the United States carried out an unexpected prisoner exchange last month -- trading former Marine Trevor Reed for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot serving a 20-year federal sentence for conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the U.S. While the U.S. does not typically embrace such exchanges, it made the deal in part because Yaroshenko had already served a long portion of his prison sentence.

The Russians might consider Griner a potential part of another such exchange.

The U.S. State Department said last week that it now regards Griner as wrongfully detained, a change in classification that suggests the U.S. government will be more active in trying to secure her release even while the legal case plays out. The status change places her case under the purview of the department's special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, who is responsible for negotiating for the release of hostages and Americans considered wrongfully detained.

Also working on the case now is a center led by Bill Richardson, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who helped secure the release of multiple hostages and detainees, including Reed.

It's not entirely clear why the U.S. government, which for weeks had been more circumspect in its approach, reclassified Griner as a wrongful detainee. But under federal law, there are a number of factors that go into such a characterization, including whether the detention is based on being an American and whether the detainee has been denied due process

U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price has confirmed that U.S. Ambassador John Sullivan had a meeting with Russian counterparts but would not say whether Griner was discussed or talk any further about her case.

Information from ESPN's T.J. Quinn and The Associated Press was used in this report.

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