Hunter Dublin | July 28, 2022
The United States has made a "significant proposal" to Russia to secure the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, said Wednesday. Providing the first public view of the United States' attempts to return the duo.
"I expect to speak with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov for the first time since the war began in the coming days," Blinken added. "I intend to raise an issue that is a top priority for us: the release of Americans Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner, who have been wrongfully detained and must be allowed to return home. We put a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release, and our governments have communicated on that proposal repeatedly and directly."
President Biden has been "directly involved," according to Blinken, and he "signs off on any proposal that we done, particularly when it comes to Americans who are arbitrarily detained abroad, including in this specific case." The conversation between Blinken and Lavrov will be their first since Russia invaded Ukraine in February.
According to a White House official, "a high-level official" contacted the families of Griner and Whelan ahead of Blinken's statement and "is having meetings with them today and tomorrow."
Griner was detained on February 17 at a Moscow airport when customs authorities discovered cannabis oil-laced vape cartridges in her luggage. Whelan has been detained in Russia since December 2018, when he traveled for a friend's wedding. He was convicted of espionage charges in a Russian court and sentenced to 16 years in jail in 2020.
Whelan's family members expressed their gratitude for the gesture. They "hope the Russian government replies to the US administration and accepts this or any other concession that allows Paul to return home to his family."
Russian media claimed that Griner may be included in a prisoner swap for Viktor Bout, a Russian gun dealer serving a 25-year jail sentence in the United States for conspiring to sell weapons to persons planning to kill Americans. Blinken repeatedly rejected to comment on a CNN story that the US offered Bout in exchange for Griner and Whelan on Wednesday.
Bout's attorney, Steve Zissou, said in a statement, "this is a sensitive point in these discussions, so I have no additional comment at this time out of respect for the process and the families involved."
In another example, Mr. Biden approved a prisoner swap in April, when Russia freed former Marine Trevor Reed. They had been jailed in Russia since 2019 on allegations of assaulting two police officers whose health was deteriorating. Konstantin Yaroshenko, serving a 20-year jail sentence for narcotics smuggling, was released by the United States.
Griner, who played in Russia during the WNBA's offseason, pleaded guilty to drug possession and smuggling charges on July 7, telling a Moscow court that she mistakenly brought the narcotic into the nation.
She testified at her hearing on Wednesday, claiming that the vape cartridges "accidentally ended up in my suitcases... and I take responsibility, but I did not intend or plan to smuggle [illegal drugs] to Russia." Griner faces up to ten years in prison if convicted.
Griner's supporters stayed relatively silent about her detention in the weeks following her arrest, thinking that Russian President Vladimir Putin would try to exploit her popularity while he waged war in Ukraine. Griner was imprisoned less than a week before Russia invaded, precipitating a deterioration in US-Russia ties.
The State Department declared in May that Griner was being unlawfully held. The categorization pushed the administration of her case to the State Department's designated presidential envoy for hostage situations under a 2020 statute.
Cherelle Griner, Griner's wife, has subsequently become more vocal, labeling her a "political pawn" and pressing Mr. Biden to do more to obtain her release.
"Initially, I was told... 'We're going to attempt to handle this behind the scenes, and let's not enhance her value and, you know, be quiet,'" Cherelle Griner said on July 6 on "CBS Mornings." "I tried that, and to be honest, we've been over 140 days at this point, so it doesn't work."
Mr. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris later that day called Cherelle Griner to reassure her that the government was working to obtain Griner's release "as quickly as possible," according to a White House readout of the discussion. Mr. Biden also read Cherelle Griner a copy of the letter he was writing to Brittney Griner in response to the WNBA star's letter asking him not to forget her and other detainees.
"I'm frightened I could be here forever," Griner wrote to Mr. Biden in her letter.
As public pressure mounted on Mr. Biden to obtain Griner's release, relatives of other detainees became dissatisfied with the president's lack of attention to their loved ones' cases.
Whelan's family stated that they were "amazed" when Mr. Biden phoned Cherelle Griner but not them. Mr. Biden ultimately phoned Whelan's sister, Elizabeth, after the family had been trying to meet with the president for months.
"President Biden told me that the United States administration was doing everything possible to facilitate Paul's safe release from his illegal arrest in Russia," the family claimed in an email on July 9. "We talked for a few minutes, and I was moved by the president's apparent concern and empathy for Paul's position and the pain of the Whelan family."
The family declared on Wednesday that they "appreciate[d] the Biden Administration pursuing Paul's release utilizing the means at its disposal."