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Putin spokesman says Griner isn't a hostage, gives no hint of release

The State Department has classified the case of WNBA star Brittney Griner, held since February, as a wrongful detention by Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s top spokesman gave no indication Monday that WNBA star Brittney Griner will be released soon by Russian authorities who say they found hashish oil in her luggage.

In an exclusive interview with NBC News’ Keir Simmons, the spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, disputed the State Department’s position that Griner is a Russian hostage.

Griner, he said, was no different from “hundreds and hundreds of Russian citizens that were sentenced for carrying hashish.”

“Why should we make an exemption for a foreign citizen?” he added.

Griner, 31, was detained in February after she landed in Moscow; authorities said a search of her bag revealed vape cartridges containing hashish oil, a derivative of cannabis. The offense could carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison in Russia.

Peskov was interviewed in Moscow, where the government is cracking down on journalists and limiting what reporters can say under threat of imprisonment. 

In May, the State Department reclassified Griner as having been “wrongfully detained” and transferred oversight of her case to the State Department Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs.

“She violated Russian law, and now she’s being prosecuted,” Peskov said. “It’s not about being a hostage. There are lots of American citizens here. They’re enjoying their freedoms … but you have to obey the laws.”

Asked why Russia didn’t refuse Griner entry or hasn’t just sent her home, Peskov said he couldn’t comment on Russian law enforcement’s decision. 

Griner’s legal team didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

Griner was in Russia to play in the country’s professional league during the WNBA’s offseason, and her detention has been extended three times. The most recent extension leaves her behind bars until at least July 2, according to the Russian state news agency Tass.

Her teammates, family and fans have pushed for her release, fearing Griner, the star center for the Phoenix Mercury, is being used to gain leverage in Russia’s confrontation with the U.S.

Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, said this month that “it remains clear that BG is being used as a political pawn,” and she urged President Joe Biden to do whatever is necessary to bring her home.

Griner, a 6-foot-9 native of Houston, has won two Olympic gold medals, a WNBA championship with the Mercury and a national title at Baylor University. She is ranked as one of the top 25 WNBA players since its founding in 1996.

Tass reported last month that Griner could be exchanged for convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout. 

NBC News wasn’t able to confirm the report, and Peskov said he had no information about whether any possible swaps were in the works. He called Bout, who is serving a 25-year prison sentence in the U.S., “a real hostage” who has been kept in the U.S. prison for more than a decade. 

In April, Russia released former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed in a prisoner exchange in which President Joe Biden commuted the sentence of Konstantin Yaroshenko, a convicted Russian drug trafficker serving time in Connecticut.

Separately, Peskov appeared to agree with NATO’s conclusion that the conflict in Ukraine could become a long one. 

"If you speak about the problem of security, of the continental security and global security, yes, it will be a long-lasting crisis,” he said. “Russia will insist … that its security is ensured. Russia will insist, and we will never trust the West anymore.”