(MOSCOW) — WNBA star Brittney Griner, who is facing nine years in a Russian prison, met with U.S. Embassy officials in Russia on Thursday, according to State Department spokesman Ned Price.
“They saw firsthand her tenacity and perseverance despite her present circumstances. We continue to press for the immediate release of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan and fair treatment for every detained American,” Price said in a tweet announcing the visit.
Thursday’s visit marks the first time U.S. officials have been able to gain direct Griner since early August. Most recently, they were able to speak with her over the phone on her birthday on Oct. 18.
Griner, a 31-year-old Houston native who plays professional basketball for the Phoenix Mercury, was detained on Feb. 17 at Sheremetyevo International Airport in Khimki as she returned to Russia to play during the WNBA’s offseason after she was accused of having vape cartridges containing hashish oil, which is illegal in the country.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Thursday that the Biden administration was told that Griner is “doing as well as can be expected under the circumstances.”
Jean-Pierre said that securing the freedom of Griner and Whelan, a U.S. citizen and former Marine who has been detained in Russia since 2019, continues to be a “top priority” for the White House.
“As we have said before, the U.S. government made a significant offer to the Russians to resolve the current unacceptable and wrongful, wrongful detentions of American citizens Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan,” Jean-Pierre said. “I can also tell you that in the subsequent weeks, despite a lack of good faith negotiation by the Russians, the U.S. government has continued to follow up on that offer and propose alternative potential ways forward with Russians through all available channels.”
Price previously expressed concern about the irregular access to Americans detained in Russia.
“We continue to impart on the Russian government the necessity of consistency and regular consular access to Brittney Griner but also to all of those Americans who are detained in Russia,” Price said last month.
Griner’s meeting with U.S. officials comes after a Russian court denied Griner’s appeal in a hearing on Oct. 25.
Griner appeared virtually at her appeal hearing and urged the court to reassess her sentence, saying that people found guilty of lesser crimes were given shorter sentences.
“I beg that the court takes in all of the stakes that was overlooked in the first court and reassess my sentence here,” Griner said, apologizing for her “mistake” and saying that it has been “traumatic” to be away from her family.
Prior to the denial of her appeal, Griner’s attorney, Alexandr Boikov, told ABC News, “Her being afraid of not being released is mostly connected to the negotiations, which we are not aware of at all.”
Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, told “The View” in an interview that aired on Tuesday the denial of the WNBA star’s appeal was “just disheartening” and left her in “complete disbelief.”
“I understand being in the field of law that every state, every country has their own rules, but this is just absurd,” Cherelle Griner said. “The crime and the punishment is disproportionate at its finest. … There are people convicted of murder in Russia who [have] a sentence way less than B.G., and it just makes absolutely no sense to me.”
Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges in July, saying that the vape cartridges containing hashish oil were in her luggage mistakenly and that she had no “intention” of breaking Russian law.
The U.S. government classified Griner’s case on May 3 as “wrongfully detained,” meaning the U.S. will more aggressively work to negotiate her release even as the legal case against her plays out, the State Department has said.
Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine began one week after Griner was detained, and some officials have expressed concern that Americans jailed in Russia could be used as leverage in the ongoing war.
ABC News’ Sarah Kolinovsky, Tanya Stukalova and Shannon Crawford contributed to this report.
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