WASHINGTON – President Biden will meet the families of Brittney Griner and Paul N. Whelan at the White House on Friday, following a longstanding request from relatives of two Americans being held in Russia.
However, the president does not have good news to provide information about the prisoner exchange that Russian authorities have offered this summer, Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, said on Thursday.
“Although I would say that the purpose of this meeting is to inform families that the Russians have accepted our offer and that we are bringing their loved ones home, that is not the case. must be what we are seeing in negotiations at the moment,” said Jean-Pierre.
“The president wanted to make sure their families understood that they were on the mind,” she added, “and his team worked tirelessly every day to get Brittney and Paul home safely.” .
Ms Griner, a WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist, was detained in Russia in February after Russian authorities found a vape box containing 0.7 grams of cannabis oil in her luggage while she was traveling. came to this country to play basketball. Last month, she was found guilty of trying to smuggle drugs into Russia and was sentenced to nine years in prison. Mr Whelan, a former corporate and maritime security executive, was arrested in 2018 and convicted in 2020 on espionage charges and later sentenced to 16 years in prison.
Everything you need to know about the Brittney Griner case
The fate of both Americans was complicated by the deterioration of diplomatic relations between the United States and Russia following President Vladimir V. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Mr. Biden has condemned Putin’s actions in Ukraine, and the US has joined other countries in imposing severe sanctions on the country.
Even so, the Biden administration this summer offered to free Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2012 by a New York court, in exchange for paying him back. freedom for Mrs. Griner and Mr. Whelan.
Russian officials have confirmed that diplomatic discussions are ongoing, but White House officials have been frustrated by the lack of response to the offer.
“The Russians should accept the offer under discussion, and we will encourage them to do so,” Jean-Pierre said on Thursday.
Meanwhile, the families of Ms. Griner and Mr. Whelan have increased public pressure on Mr. Biden to ensure that his administration doesn’t ignore it.
The Plight of Brittney Griner in Russia
The American basketball star spent months in prison in Russia accused of smuggling hash oil into the country.
Earlier in the summer, relatives of both inmates expressed disappointment that they had not heard directly from Mr. Biden. Cherelle Griner, Griner’s wife, said on CBS in early July that the administration was “doing nothing” and that she wanted to hear directly from Mr Biden. Two days later, Mr. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke to Cherelle Griner.
That prompted Elizabeth Whelan, Mr Whelan’s sister, to publicly question why she hadn’t received a similar call. In a call shortly after, Mr. Biden assured Whelan that authorities were working to free both prisoners.
Since then, pressure has continued to keep Mr Biden from meeting with families. Jean-Pierre said on Thursday that the meeting had been scheduled for Friday because one of the family members had been to the area and the president wanted to see both families on the same day.
It is unclear whether the president will meet the families together or separately.
The possibility of a prisoner swap deal with Russia comes months after the United States released a convicted Russian drug smuggler in exchange for Trevor Reed, a former US Marine. was held in a Russian prison for three years. White House officials said their Russian counterparts at the time indicated there could be another deal for Bout.
Mr. Bout was known as “The Merchant of Death” because of his arms trade activities. He is serving a 25-year federal prison sentence for selling weapons to American undercover agents, telling them he has no objection to using weapons to kill Americans.