WASHINGTON– President Joe Biden plans to meet at the White House on Friday with family members of WNBA star Brittney Griner and Michigan corporate security official Paul Whelan, who are both still imprisoned in Russia, said senior administration officials to The Associated Press.
The separate meetings are set to be the first face-to-face meeting between Biden and the families and come amid sustained but so far unsuccessful efforts by the administration to secure the Americans’ release. The administration said in July it had made a “substantial offer” to bring them home, but despite plans for White House meetings, there were no signs a breakthrough was imminent.
Griner has been detained in Russia since February on drug-related charges. She was sentenced last month to nine years in prison after pleading guilty and appealing the sentence. Whelan is serving a 16-year sentence on espionage-related charges that he and his family say are false. The U.S. government considers the two wrongfully detained, placing their cases before the desk of its chief hostage negotiator.
Friday’s meetings, which the two families have long sought, are meant to underscore the administration’s commitment to bringing back Griner, Whelan and other Americans imprisoned abroad, as well as “connecting with them on the on a human level as they undergo an ordeal imposed on them by the Russian government,” said one of the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the meetings had not yet been publicly announced.
Negotiations have been complicated by strained relations between Washington and Moscow over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken took the unusual step of announcing two months ago that the administration had made a substantial offer to Russia. Since then, the administration has followed up in multiple ways to pressure its offer and engage in serious negotiations, one of the administration officials said Thursday.
The Russians, who indicated they were open to negotiations but berated the Americans for conducting them privately, came back with suggestions that are beyond the reach of the administration, the official said, refusing to give more details. But the United States followed the same channels that produced an April prisoner swap that brought Navy veteran Trevor Reed back from Russia, the official said.
The administration did not provide details of its proposal, but a person familiar with the matter previously confirmed that it had offered to release Viktor Bout, a convicted Russian arms dealer currently imprisoned in the United States. It is also possible that, for the sake of symmetry, Russia could insist that two of its citizens be released from prison.
Biden spoke by phone in July with Griner’s wife, Cherelle, and with Whelan’s sister, Elizabeth, but the two families 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.
Meetings are held separately to ensure that each family has private time with the President. But the fact that they happen on the same day shows how intertwined the two cases have been since the only deal that is likely acceptable to the United States is one that gets the two Americans – a famous WNBA player and a Michigan man who until recently was little known to the public – at home together at the same time,
In recent months, representatives of both families have expressed frustration at what they perceive to be a lack of aggressive action and coordination by the administration.
Cherelle Griner, for example, told The Associated Press in an interview in June that she was appalled after a failed phone call from his wife that was supposed to have been corrected by the US Embassy in Moscow, leaving the couple unable to connect. their fourth birthday.
Those close to Whelan have sought to keep the spotlight on his case, worried he has been overshadowed in the public eye by the focus on the far more important Griner – a two-time Olympic gold medalist and seven-time Olympic star. the WNBA. They also expressed disappointment when Whelan, despite being held in Russia since December 2018, was not included in a prisoner exchange last April that brought home another detained American, the veteran of the Navy Trevor Reed.
Friday’s meeting was scheduled before news broke this week of an unrelated trip to Russia by Bill Richardson, a former US ambassador to the United Nations who served as a veteran envoy in hostage and detainee cases. Administration officials reacted coldly to the trip, with State Department spokesman Ned Price saying Wednesday that engaging with Russia outside of the “established channel” could hamper efforts to bring Griner and Whelan back. at their home.
Administration officials say work on the hostage and detainee cases persists whether or not a family receives a meeting with the president, though there is no doubt that such a meeting could help establish a link. Biden met in the Oval Office in March with Reed’s parents after the Texas couple stood with a large sign outside the White House calling for their son’s release.
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