Tuesday, October 4, 2022

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Biden meets the Griner and Whelan families at the White House

Families are urging the US to secure the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner and former US Marine Paul Whelan being held in Russia.

US President Joe Biden has met with the families of basketball star Brittney Griner and former Marine Paul Whelan amid ongoing efforts in Washington to secure the release of two American citizens from detention in Russia.

Biden sat down with Cherelle Griner, Griner’s wife, and Elizabeth Whelan, the ex-Marine’s sister, in the Oval Office on Friday.

The meetings began just before 5 p.m. (21:00 GMT), the White House said.

Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, said earlier this week that Biden hopes the face-to-face meetings will show the families “that they are remembered for the US government.”

“While I would like to say that the purpose of this meeting is to inform the families that the Russians have accepted our offer and we are bringing their loved ones home, that is not what we are seeing in these negotiations at this time. ‘ Jean-Pierre told reporters.

Griner, a Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) and two-time Olympic gold medalist, was sentenced last month to nine years in prison for drug offenses.

She was arrested in February, days before Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and her case has tumbled through Russia’s court system amid war-torn relations between Moscow and Washington.

Whelan, a Navy veteran, was sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2020 on espionage charges.

The US State Department has called the detention of the two US citizens unjustified.

Earlier Friday, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council said negotiations are underway with Moscow to release the two Americans.

“The President felt it was important to continue the dialogue with the family members… We kept in touch with them all the time; we kept them updated throughout,” John Kirby told reporters.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in July that Washington had made a “substantive proposal” to Moscow to release Griner and Whelan.

Several US media outlets reported around this time that the Biden administration was offering a prisoner swap involving a US-imprisoned Russian arms dealer.

Kirby told reporters on Friday that Russia has not acted on that offer, “but that doesn’t mean we’re not still in negotiations or not still trying.”

Moscow said last month it was “ready” to discuss a prisoner swap deal with Washington.

Meanwhile, Griner’s relatives, teammates and supporters have urged the US government to put its full weight behind the case to push for her release.

Griner has been accused of bringing vape canisters of cannabis oil to Russia where she was scheduled to play for a basketball team in Yekaterinburg.

Despite deteriorating relations between Washington and Moscow, Russia freed Trevor Reed, a former US Marine, in April. In exchange, the US released Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was serving a 20-year prison sentence in the US for drug-related offenses.

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