The United States stepped up its push Friday for consular access to Brittney Griner, the WNBA star who is detained in Russia on allegations of drug smuggling, as 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’s being held and spoke to her with the help of a cellmate who speaks Russian and English and 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,” Kalugina said of the Phoenix Mercury star, whose legal ordeal comes amid tension between Russia and the U.S. over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Kalugina is a member of the public monitoring commission that visits lockups 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 U.S. consul yet, Kalugina said.
The State Department issued a statement Friday demanding access to 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 U.S. citizen detainees in Russia, including those in pre-trial 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.
Griner was detained after arriving at a Moscow airport, reportedly in mid-February, after Russian authorities said a search of her luggage revealed vape cartridges that allegedly contained oil derived from cannabis, which could carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.
Russian state news agency Tass reported Thursday that a court had extended Griner’s pretrial detention to May 19.
Kalugina said that when she met with Griner, Griner made no complaints about her treatment at the facility and said she was getting an hour a day to spend in an exercise yard.
Kalugina said Griner is being held at the facility where an Israeli woman, Naama Issachar, spent time before Russian President Vladimir Putin pardoned her in 2020. Russian authorities said they found hashish in Issachar’s luggage while she was transferring between flights in Moscow en route from India to Israel, at the same airport where Griner was detained. Issachar was convicted and sentenced to 7 1/2 years in prison before she was freed after spending nine months behind bars.
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 U.S. citizens arrested and jailed in prisons abroad, a small subset are designated by the U.S. 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 U.S. government has not yet put Griner’s case in that category.
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. And Michigan corporate security executive Paul Whelan is serving a 16-year sentence on espionage charges that his family and the U.S. government have said are false. U.S. officials have publicly called for Moscow to release them.