Brittney Griner remains in custody in Russia, with the country’s state-owned media releasing new images of the WNBA star.
News broke over the weekend that Griner, a seven-time WNBA All-Star and two-time Olympic gold medallist, was arrested in February after customs officials allegedly detected hashish oil in her luggage at an airport near Moscow.
Amid growing concern for her wellbeing and continued calls for her release, Russian state TV broadcast a photograph of the out athlete in custody holding up a piece of paper.
The image, which was released on Tuesday (8 March), was too blurred to be able to make out what was written on the paper.
The Russian Federal Customs Services released a statement claiming that officials detained Brittney Griner in February for possession of vape cartridges that contained hashish oil.
It also released a video that showed airport security workers searching the luggage of a passenger, who was later identified as Griner.
The customs service said a criminal case has been opened, and Griner could face up to 10 years in a Russian prison if convicted.
Brittney Griner had been playing for the Moscow team UMMC Ekaterinburg and was reportedly earning $1.5 million (£1.1 million) for the off-season – six times her WNBA salary with the Phoenix Mercury.
The exact date of her arrest remains unclear and it is still unknown where the star is now.
Concern for the sports star continues to grow as she remains detained, with a former Pentagon official telling Yahoo Sports she feared Putin could use the LGBT+ icon as a “high profile hostage” during the ongoing war in Ukraine.
“If we want her out of jail, Russia is going to have some terms,” said Evelyn Farkas, who served as the US deputy assistant secretary of defence for Russia and Ukraine from 2012 to 2015. “It could be a prisoner swap. They also could use it as an implicit threat or blackmail to get us to do something or not do something. Either way, they find it useful.”
Texas congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee is among those calling for Griner’s swift release.
“We know that there were some issues dealing with vape cartridges and other items but let me be very clear,” said Lee, who represents Griner’s hometown of Houston, Texas, in the House of Representatives. “Brittney Griner is a United States citizen, she was a guest in Russia … and I will be demanding her release.”
Lee added that Russia’s actions in Ukraine undermined its authority, saying: “I don’t want to disregard a sovereign nation but Putin has disregarded sovereign nations his entire service in this world.
“Anyone that is killing and attacking and destroying Ukraine, a neighbouring country that is not bothering them, has no right to hold Ms Griner. Period.”
According to the Associated Press, Griner has played professional basketball in Russia for the last seven years.
She played for her Russian team the UMMC Ekaterinburg on 29 January before the league had a two-week break in early February.
Over a dozen WNBA players have played in Russia and Ukraine this winter, and the WNBA confirmed that all players besides Griner had left both countries.
News of Brittney Griner’s detainment comes as the US placed sanctions on Russia after Putin ordered his forces to invade Ukraine last month.