WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden is scheduled to meet for the first time Friday with family members of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, two Americans who are classified as having been wrongfully detained in Russia.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Thursday that Biden will meet with Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, and Whelan’s sister, Elizabeth Whelan, at the White House. They will talk about the president’s commitment to bring the pair home safely, Jean-Pierre said.
“As we have said before, we believe that Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney and Paul under intolerable circumstances,” Jean-Pierre said. She emphasized that officials brought a “significant offer” to Russia months ago in an effort to secure Griner and Whelan’s release.
“We have followed up on that offer repeatedly, and we’ll continue to pursue every avenue to bring them home safely,” she said. Later, she added, “The Russians should accept our offer. They should accept our offer today.”
Russian officials confirmed in July that negotiations were ongoing for a possible prisoner exchange. Authorities have declined to go into specifics, although news reports have indicated that the U.S. offered to trade Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for Griner and Whelan. Bout, who was known as the “Merchant of Death,” was sentenced to 25 years in prison after a New York jury convicted him in 2011 of conspiring to sell millions of dollars’ worth of weapons to a Colombia-based terrorism group that planned to kill Americans.
In July, Griner pleaded guilty in a Russian court to drug charges five months after officials at a Moscow airport said they found vape cartridges containing hashish oil — a substance banned in Russia — in her luggage. The WNBA star was traveling to Russia to play basketball during the U.S. offseason. In court, she said she hadn’t meant to break any laws and that she believed she must have accidentally brought the vape cartridges with her in her rush to pack for her trip.
Whelan traveled to Russia as a tourist in 2018 and was arrested on allegations of espionage. In 2020, he was convicted of spying and sentenced to serve 16 years.
“One of the things that the president wanted to make clear is, and one of the reasons he’s … meeting with the families is that he wanted to let them know that they remain front of mind and that his team is working on this every day on making sure that Brittney and Paul return home safely,” Jean-Pierre said on Thursday.
If the prisoner swap between the U.S. and Russia is approved, the exchange will be the second to take place under Biden. In April, officials announced the release of former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed, who had been convicted two years earlier of assaulting two Russian police officers and sentenced to nine years in a prison camp. In exchange, officials commuted the sentence of Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, who had been convicted in 2011 of conspiring to traffic more than $100 million worth of cocaine and sentenced to serve 20 years in prison.
©2022 Cox Media Group