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Biden meets Griner, Whelan families as Russia sits on swap offer

US Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) basketball player Brittney Griner. (EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)
September 18, 2022

President Joe Biden had meetings at the White House on Friday with family members of two Americans who have been detained in Russia.

The president first met with Elizabeth Whelan, sister of former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, then with Cherelle Griner, the wife of WNBA star Brittney Griner, and Griner’s agent Lindsay Colas, the White House said. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan joined Biden in both meetings.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in August that the U.S. had made a “substantial” proposal to Russia to try to secure Griner and Whelan’s release.

The Biden administration proposed swapping Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, and Whelan for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer known as the “merchant of death” who in 2012 was sentenced to 25 years in prison, and a second Russian also held in a U.S. jail, according to a person with knowledge of the matter.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Friday that the Russians had not responded to that offer. “Sadly, we don’t have a result here to tell you about but the president felt it was important to continue the dialogue with the family members,” Kirby said.

“The primary goal of the meeting today is to be able to update the families and keep them completely apprised of where we are in the process,” he added.

Advocates, including civil and human rights leaders, have pressed the White House for more transparency on the status of negotiations, and for more urgency in securing a deal for their release.

Griner, who plays basketball in Russia during the off-season, was arrested at a Moscow airport after customs officials said they found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage. The arrest in February occurred shortly before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

She was convicted of drug possession and smuggling and a court sentenced her to nine years in prison. Griner’s lawyers are appealing that sentence.

Whelan was jailed in Russia in 2020 on spying charges that he denies.

The administration says the Americans are being wrongfully detained. Biden has called Griner’s punishment “unacceptable.”


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