Families of Americans jailed in Russia hope meeting with Biden will set stage for release

ByBrhe Berry via KTRK logo
Friday, September 16, 2022
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The White House stressed that the meetings are not to deliver news that Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan are coming home, but instead to remind the families that they are still working on their release.

WASHINGTON -- Families of Americans jailed in Russia hope a White House meeting on Friday could set the stage for their release.

The wife of WNBA star Brittney Griner and sister of Michigan corporate security executive Paul Whelan are expected to sit down with President Joe Biden.

The Biden Administration says it's still negotiating with Russia.

The White House stressed that Friday's meetings are not to deliver news that Griner and Whelan are coming home, but are instead for Biden to reassure them that they are on his mind and he is still working on their return.

"While I would love 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're seeing in these negotiations at this time," Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.

She said the administration made a serious offer to Russia months ago.

The separate meetings are to be the first in-person encounter between Biden and the families and are taking place amid sustained but so far unsuccessful efforts by the administration to secure the Americans' release.

RELATED: 'I fought': Trevor Reed speaks out on how he survived nearly 3 years in a Russian prison

"We made a significant offer a couple of months ago through the same channels we used for Trevor Reed," Jean-Pierre said. "We have followed up on that offer repeatedly and will continue to pursue every avenue to bring them home safely."

Former United Nations Ambassador Bill Richardson made his own arrangements to meet with the Russian government to try and negotiate a release for Griner.

The White House said it does not support this and asked Richardson to not travel to Russia, adding that he cannot make deals on behalf of the U.S. government.

SEE ALSO: U.S. may do '2-for-2' prisoner swap to get Griner, Whelan out of Russia: Ex-ambassador

Griner has been held in Russia since February on drug-related charges. She was sentenced last month to nine years in prison after pleading guilty and has appealed the punishment.

Whelan is serving a 16-year sentence on espionage-related charges that he and his family say are false.

The U.S. government regards both as wrongfully detained, placing their cases with the office of its top hostage negotiator.

The negotiations, already strained because of tense relations between Washington and Moscow over Russia's invasion of Ukraine, have also been complicated by Russia's apparent resistance to the proposal the Americans put on the table.

The Russians, who have indicated that they are open to negotiations but have chided the Americans to conduct them in private, have come back with suggestions that are not within the administration's ability to deliver, said the administration official, declining to elaborate.

The administration has not provided specifics about its proposal, but a person familiar with the matter previously confirmed it had offered to release Viktor Bout, a convicted Russian arms dealer who is imprisoned in the U.S. and who has long been sought by Moscow. It is also possible that, in the interests of symmetry, Russia might insist on having two of its citizens released from prison.

READ MORE: Who is Viktor Bout, Russian arms dealer known as 'Merchant of Death', touted for US prisoner swap?

Biden spoke by phone in July with Griner's wife, Cherelle, and with Whelan's sister, Elizabeth, but both families have also requested in-person meetings. On Friday, Biden plans to speak at the White House with Cherelle Griner and with the player's agent in one meeting and with Elizabeth Whelan in the other, according to the official.

The meetings are being done separately so as to ensure that each family has private time with the president. But the fact that they are happening on the same day shows the extent to which the two cases have become intertwined since the only deal that is presumably palatable to the U.S. is one that gets both Americans - a famous WNBA player and a Michigan man who until recently was little known to the public - home together at the same time.

In the past several months, representatives of both families have expressed frustration over what they perceived as a lack of aggressive action and coordination from the administration.

Cherelle Griner, for instance, told The Associated Press in an interview in June that she was dismayed after the failure of a phone call from her wife that was supposed to have been patched through by the American Embassy in Moscow left the couple unable to connect on their fourth anniversary.

Whelan's relatives have sought to keep attention on his case, anxious that it has been overshadowed in the public eye by the focus on the far more prominent Griner - a two-time Olympic gold medalist and seven-time WNBA all-star. They also conveyed disappointment when Whelan, despite having been held in Russia since December 2018, was not included in a prisoner swap last April that brought home Reed.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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