Washington President Biden met at the White House on Friday with relatives of WNBA star Brittney Griner and Michigan corporate security manager Paul Whelan, who are both still imprisoned in Russia, said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.
The separate meetings were the first face-to-face meeting between Mr. Biden and the families and took place amid ongoing, but so far unsuccessful, government efforts to secure the release of the Americans. The administration said in July it had made a “substantial proposal” to get them home, but despite plans for the White House meetings, there is no sign that a breakthrough is imminent.
Mr. Biden separately met Whelan’s sister, Elizabeth Whelan, and Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, in the Oval Office, according to a statement Friday night from Jean-Pierre.
“The President held the meetings to reiterate his continued commitment to work by all available avenues to bring Brittney and Paul home safely,” the press secretary read. “He asked about the well-being of Elizabeth and Cherelle and their respective families during this painful time. The President appreciated the opportunity to learn more about Brittney and Paul from those who love them most, recognizing that every minute they are held a minute is too long.”
Griner has been held in Russia since February on drug-related charges. She waslast month to nine years in prison after pleading guilty and has the punishment. Whelan serves a On which he and his family say are false. The U.S. government considers both to be wrongly detained and places their cases with the Supreme Hostage Negotiator’s Office.
Negotiations have been complicated by tense relations between Washington and Moscow over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“As we have said before, we believe that Russia is wrongly holding Brittney and Paul under unbearable conditions,” Jean-Pierre said at a White House press conference on Thursday. “And, as you know, we have been in direct contact with the Russian government through the appropriate channels.”
State Secretary Antony Blinken took the unusual step of announcing two months ago that the government hadTo Russia. Since then, the administration has followed up in several ways: and to initiate serious negotiations, one of the board officials said Thursday.
The Russians, who have indicated they are open to negotiations but have reprimanded the Americans for keeping them private, have come back with suggestions the government cannot deliver, the official said, but declined to comment further. But the US is following through the same channels that spawned a prisoner swap in April that brought Marine veteran Trevor Reedsaid the official.
The administration did not provide details of its proposal, but a person familiar with the matter previously confirmed that it had offered to releasea convicted Russian arms dealer now in the US. It is also possible that, in the interests of symmetry, Russia is pushing for two of its citizens to be released from prison.
Mr Bidenin July with Griner’s wife and Whelan’s sister, but both families had also requested in-person meetings.
Meetings were held separately to ensure that each family had private time with the president. But the fact that they happened on the same day shows the extent to which the two things have become intertwined, as the only deal supposedly acceptable to the US is one that gets both Americans – a famous WNBA player and a man from Michigan who until recently was little known to the public – at home at the same time,
In recent months, representatives from both families have expressed frustration at what they saw as the administration’s lack of aggressive action and coordination.
Cherelle Griner, for example, told The Associated Press in a June interview that she was stunned after the failure of a call from her wife allegedly put through by the US embassy in Moscow left the couple unable to make contact. make on their fourth birthday.
Whelan’s relatives have tried to keep the focus on his case, fearing it will be overshadowed in the public eye by its focus on the much more prominent Griner – a two-time Olympic gold medalist and seven-time WNBA all-star. They were also disappointed when, despite being held in Russia since December 2018, Whelan was not included in a prisoner swap last April that brought home another detained American, Navy veteran Trevor Reed.
Friday’s meeting was scheduled before news broke this week about an unrelated trip to Russia by Bill Richardson, a former US ambassador to the United Nations who has been an experienced envoy on hostage and detainee cases. Government officials reacted coolly to that trip, with State Department spokesman Ned Price saying on Wednesday that dialogue with Russia outside the “established channel” could hinder efforts to get Griner and Whelan home. .
Government officials say work on hostage and detainee cases continues whether or not a family gets a meeting with the president, though there’s also no doubt such a meeting could help establish a connection. Mr Bidenin March with Reed’s parents after the Texas couple stood outside the White House with a large sign calling for their son’s release.