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US: Biden meets relatives of Americans jailed in Russia

September 17, 2022

Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan were sentenced to jail time by Russian courts on charges that the US deems "unacceptable". President Joe Biden reassured their families that he was working on bringing them home.

American basketball player Brittney Griner walks surrounded by guards in Russia
Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner escorted from a court room outside MoscowImage: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP Photo/picture alliance

US President Joe Biden on Friday met with the families of two Americans who had been detained in Russia: Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, in the Oval Office. 

During his separate meetings with Cherelle Griner, wife of women's basketball star Griner, and Elizabeth Whelan, sister of former US Marine Whelan, Biden reassured them that he was working to bring them back home.

"We're going to continue to do everything that we can, working tirelessly every day, to make sure that we get them home," White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters.

"The President appreciated the opportunity to learn more about Brittney and Paul from those who love them most, and acknowledged that every minute they are being held is a minute too long," she added. 

Who are Griner and Whelan?

Griner is a two-time Olympic gold medalist and Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) star who was in Russia to play for the professional Yekaterinburg team during her off-season from the Phoenix Mercury. The 31-year-old was arrested at a Moscow airport in February for possessing vape cartridges with a small amount of cannabis oil. 

She had been prescribed medical cannabis in the US to deal with pain from chronic injuries.

Last month, she was sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison on drug charges, a verdict that was deemed "unacceptable" by Biden.

Whelan, 52, is currently serving a 16-year sentence on espionage-related charges, which he and his family say are false. 

'Quiet diplomacy' at work

The US government, which regards both arrests as wrongful, said in late July that it had put forward a "substantial offer" to secure their release. Earlier in the day, John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said that Russia had not responded to an offer to secure the two Americans' release.

While the Russian foreign ministry said last month that it was engaged in "quiet diplomacy" with Washington, which could include a potential prisoner swap, there have been few public developments over the past weeks.

Multiple reports say Washington offered to exchange Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout for Griner and Whelan.

see/dj (Reuters, AP, AFP)