US presented ‘substantial proposal’ to Russia seeking release of WNBA starand former US Marine Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday, offering the first public insight into US efforts to bring the pair home.
“In the next few days, I expect to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov for the first time since the start of the war,” Blinken said. “I plan to raise an issue that is a top priority for us: the release of Americans Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner, who were wrongfully detained and must be allowed to return home. weeks a substantial proposal to facilitate their Our governments have communicated several times and directly on this proposal.
Blinken said President Biden has been “directly involved” and that he “endorses any proposal we make, and certainly with respect to Americans arbitrarily detained overseas, including in this specific case.” The conversation between Blinken and Lavrov will be their first interaction since Russia invaded Ukraine in February.
A White House official said Wednesday that “a senior official” contacted Griner’s and Whelan’s families before Blinken’s announcement and was “having conversations with them today and tomorrow.”
Griner was arrested Feb. 17 at a Moscow airport when customs officials said they found vape cartridges containing hash oil in her luggage. Whelan has been detained in Russia since December 2018, when he traveled to Russia for a friend’s wedding. He was convicted by a Russian court of espionage charges and sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2020.
Members of Whelan’s family welcomed news of the offer, saying they “hope the Russian government will respond to the US government and accept this concession or another that will allow Paul to return home to his family.” .
Russian media have speculated that Griner could be included in a prisoner swap for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who is serving a 25-year prison sentence in the United States for conspiracy to sell weapons to people who intended to kill Americans. On Wednesday, Blinken repeatedly declined to comment on a CNN report that the United States offered Bout in exchange for Griner and Whelan.
Steve Zissou, attorney for Bout, said in a statement that “this is a sensitive time in these negotiations, so out of respect for the process and the families involved, I have no further comment at this time.”
Mr Biden approved a prisoner swap in another case in April, when Russia freed the former Marinewho had been detained in Russia since 2019 for assaulting two police officers and . The United States has released Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was serving a 20-year prison sentence for drug trafficking.
Griner, who played in Russia during the WNBA offseason,to drug possession and smuggling charges on July 7, telling a Moscow court that she accidentally smuggled the substance into the country.
SheWednesday, saying the vape cartridges “went into my bags by accident…and I take responsibility for that but I had no intention of smuggling or planning to smuggle [banned substances] in Russia.” Griner faces up to 10 years behind bars if convicted.
In the weeks following his arrest, Griner’s allies remained mostly silent on his case, believing that Russian President Vladimir Putin would seek to cash in on his fame as he waged war in Ukraine. Griner was detained less than a week before the invasion of Russia, pushing US-Russian relations to a low point.
In May, the State Department said it determined that Griner was. Under a 2020 law, the classification transferred handling of his case to the State Department’s Presidential Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs.
Griner’s wife, Cherelle, has since begun to speak out more publicly, calling her “and urging Mr. Biden to do more to secure his release.
“Initially I was told… ‘We’re going to try to manage this behind the scenes and not increase its value and, you know, be quiet'”, Cherelle GrinerJuly 6. “I did, and respectfully, we’re over 140 days at this point. It’s not working.”
InMr. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris reassured her that the administration was working to secure Griner’s release “as soon as possible,” according to a reading of the White House conversation. Mr Biden also read Cherelle Griner a draft of the letter he was sending to Brittney Griner in response to a letter the WNBA star had written to her, begging him not to forget her and the other captives .
“I’m terrified of being here forever,” Griner wrote.to Mr. Biden.
As public pressure mounted on Mr. Biden to secure Griner’s release, the families of the other detainees were frustrated by the lack of attention their loved ones’ cases had received from the president.
Whelan’s family said they were “surprised” after Mr Biden called Cherelle Griner, but they weren’t. Mr Biden finally called Whelan’s sister, Elizabeth, after the family sought to meet the president for months.
“President Biden has assured me that the U.S. government is doing everything it can to ensure Paul’s safe return from his wrongful detention in Russia,” the family said in a July 9 email. “We spoke for several minutes and I was touched by the President’s evident concern and empathy for the plight of Paul and the plight of the Whelan family.”
On Wednesday, the family said they “appreciated[d] the Biden administration demanding Paul’s release using the resources at its disposal.”
Melissa Quinn and Arden Farhi contributed to this report.