The U.S. government reclassified WNBA star Brittney Griner’s case and now considers her to be wrongfully detained in Russia, the first time that distinction was made in the matter, according to multiple reports Tuesday, nearly three months after the Phoenix Mercury player was detained in the country on drug charges.
The change means the U.S. government will not wait for Griner’s case to play out in Russian court—she has a hearing on May 19—as her return is negotiated, according to ESPN, which broke the news, and the Associated Press.
Sources declined to tell ESPN what led up the change in designation, but a source close to Griner said they feel “really good about it,” though they “don’t want to get their hopes up.”
A source close to Griner said they were notified on Saturday that the special envoy’s office was taking over her case from the consular office, ESPN reported.
A source told ESPN that former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson, who works as international hostage negotiator—and was on the team that helped secure the release of Trevor Reed from Russia on Wednesday—signed onto Griner’s case last week.
A spokesperson for the State Department told ESPN and Fox News that the agency “has determined that the Russian Federation has wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Brittney Griner,” and Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens will lead the team working for her release, though this does not mean Griner is legally a hostage.
Forbes has reached out to representatives for Griner and the State Department for comment.
The WNBA—which has largely stayed quiet about Griner’s detention—announced Tuesday her initials and number would be displayed on all 12 WNBA courts during the season, which starts Friday. Griner’s teammates and supporters in Congress will be told they can bring attention to her case, according to ESPN. Several people in the women’s basketball community have said they were advised to be intentional when speaking about Griner so she could not be used as a political pawn and to avoid putting her release at risk.
Griner was detained at a Russian airport in February for allegedly carrying hash oil in her luggage, though news of her arrest did not break until March. The charges carry up to 10 years in prison. When Reed was released last week as part of a prisoner swap, President Joe Biden said he “won’t stop until Paul Whelan and others” are freed from the country, referring to another American detained in Russia. That day State Department spokesman Ned Price told CNN Griner is a “top priority” and the agency is working with the Russian embassy to make sure they are given constant access to her and that she is being treated fairly.