Calls to free Brittney Griner escalate ahead of WNBA star's trial in Russia

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(NEW YORK) — Friends and family members of Brittney Griner gathered for a vigil outside the Russian Consulate in New York City on Wednesday evening, calling for the WNBA star’s release ahead of her trial in Russia.

“Feb 17 was the last time I talked to my sister,” said Janell Roy, Griner’s childhood friend said at the vigil. “I haven’t been in communication with her, I haven’t been able to talk to her and it hurts.”

Griner was detained at Sheremetyevo International Airport in Russia on Feb. 17 after she was accused of carrying vape cartridges containing hashish oil, which is illegal in Russia.

Griner’s detention in Russia was extended repeatedly, most recently through Dec. 20, which is the expected length of her trial. If convicted, Griner, 31, faces up to 10 years in prison.

The Phoenix Mercury player’s trial is set to begin on Friday and she is expected to remain in custody throughout.

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The WNBA star, who attended a preliminary hearing on Monday in Khimki, a suburb of Moscow, did not respond to an ABC News reporter’s question as she walked out of the courtroom.

Asked how Griner is feeling at the hearing, her attorney Aleksandr Boikov told ABC News on Monday, “She’s fine as she could be.”

The U.S. government classified Griner’s case on May 3 as “wrongfully detained,” meaning the United States will more aggressively work to negotiate her release even as the legal case against her plays out, the State Department said.

“… The fact remains that the U.S. Government has determined that Brittney Griner is wrongfully detained and being used as a political pawn,” Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, wrote in a series of tweets on Monday. “The negotiation for her immediate release regardless of the legal proceedings should remain a top priority and we expect [President Joe Biden] and [Vice President Kamala Harris] to do everything in their power, right now, to get a deal done to bring her home.”

White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters on Tuesday that Griner is “unjustly detained” and called on the Russian government to release the American basketball star.

Sullivan further stressed the U.S. is “actively engaged” in working to secure Griner’s release, but added that the diplomatic efforts are “sensitive matters.”

“But I will tell you it has the fullest attention of the president and every senior member of his national security and diplomatic team, and we are actively working to find a resolution to this case, and will continue to do so without rest until we get Brittney safely home,” he said. “We also are trying to work actively to return all unjustly detained Americans and hostages being held overseas, whether that be in Iran or Afghanistan or Russia or Venezuela, or China or elsewhere.”

The 6-foot-9 center won an NCAA title at Baylor in 2012; a WNBA title with Phoenix, her current team, in 2014; and gold medals with the U.S. women’s team at the 2016 and 2020 Olympics.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began one week after Griner was detained. Some officials are concerned that Americans jailed in Russia could be used as leverage in the ongoing conflict.

Calls to free Griner escalated following the release of U.S. Marine veteran Trevor Reed in April, who was freed from a Russian prison as part of a prisoner exchange. Former Marine Paul Whelan has also been detained in Russia since 2019.

An international prisoner swap potentially involving Griner, Whelan and convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout has been discussed, according to Russian media reports, but it’s unclear if there has been any substantial movement on the issue. Russian officials have also indicated that they want Griner to stand trial.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Tuesday that Brittney Griner’s inability to reach her wife was an “unfortunate mistake,” adding that another phone call has been scheduled.

It would have been the first time that Brittney Griner speaks to her wife since her detention more than three months ago.

“This was an unfortunate mistake, and the Department of State is working to rectify this as quickly as possible,” Jean-Pierre said, adding that another call between the couple was scheduled. It is unclear if the call has taken place.Cherelle Griner previously told “Good Morning America” co-anchor Robin Roberts in May that she would like to speak with President Joe Biden.

“I just keep hearing that, you know, he has the power. She’s a political pawn,” she said. “So if they’re holding her because they want you to do something, then I want you to do it.”

Asked about a potential meeting between Cherelle Griner and President Biden, Jean-Pierre said, “We don’t have anything to share about a potential phone conversation or meeting.”

ABC News’ Tanya Stukalova and Molly Nagle contributed to this report.

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