American Government has said it now considers double Olympic basketball gold medallist Brittney Griner to be “wrongfully detained” in Russia, signalling a step-up in efforts to secure her release.
Griner was arrested at an airport in Moscow in February after Russian customs officials said they found she was in possession of vape cartridges containing hashish oil.
She has not been formally charged, but is due to have a hearing on May 19.
Since then, tensions between the US and Russia have escalated due to the invasion of Ukraine.
The US State Department confirmed the latest status of Griner, who plays for the Phoenix Mercury in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) and for UMMC Ekaterinburg of the Russian Premier League during the close season.
“The Department of State has determined that the Russian Federation has wrongfully detained US citizen Brittney Griner,” the State Department said.
“With this determination, the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens will lead the interagency team for securing Brittney Griner’s release.”
It added that “the welfare and safety of US citizens abroad is among the highest priorities of the US Government”.
The move was welcomed by WNBA Players Association President Nneka Ogwumike.
“It has been 75 days that our friend, team-mate, sister, Brittney Griner, has been wrongfully detained in Russia,” Ogwumike posted on Twitter.
“It is time for her to come home.
“Having learned that the US Government has now determined that BG [Brittney Griner] is being wrongfully detained, we are hopeful that their efforts will be significant, swift and successful.”
The WNBA has said it plans to feature Griner’s initials and her number, 42, along the sideline of each of its 12 courts for the 2022 season.
The league has also allowed the Phoenix Mercury to register a replacement player until Griner returns home, and said she will be paid her full salary.
Griner, a centre who is 6ft 9in tall, was a member of the US women’s basketball team which triumphed at Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020.
The American, also a member of the US team that won the International Basketball Federation World Cup in 2014 and 2018, is the only woman in US college history to score 2,000 points and block 500 shots.
She has represented Russia’s leading club team UMMC Ekaterinburg since 2014.