No movement on release of Brittney Griner from Russia, Biden says

President Joe Biden said he would meet with Vladimir Putin if the Russian leader was willing to discuss Griner’s case.

United States President Joe Biden has said there has been no movement with Russian President Vladimir Putin regarding the release of American basketball star Brittney Griner.

Biden made the remarks on Wednesday during a brief exchange with journalists outside the White House.

On Tuesday, Biden told CNN that he had no plans to meet Putin at the G20 summit meeting next month, unless the Russian leader was willing to discuss the detention of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) star.

“Look, I have no intention of meeting with him,” said Biden. “But, for example, if he came to me at the G20 and said, ‘I want to talk about the release of Griner,’ I would meet with him.”

A Russian court convicted Griner on August 4 of drug smuggling after police said in February they found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport.

The eight-time All-Star player with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medallist, had admitted that she had the canisters in her luggage, but testified that she had inadvertently packed them in haste and that she had no criminal intent. Her defence team presented written statements that she had been prescribed cannabis to treat pain.

She was sentenced to nine years in prison – close to the maximum of 10 years for drug possession. Griner’s lawyers argued after the conviction that the punishment was excessive. They also said in similar cases in Russia defendants have received an average sentence of about five years, with about a third of them granted parole.

Griner’s lawyers have filed an appeal which is scheduled to be heard in court on October 25.

Her February arrest came at a time of heightened tensions between Moscow and Washington, just days before Russia invaded Ukraine. At the time, Griner, recognised as one of the greatest players in WNBA history, was returning to Russia, where she played during the US league’s off-season.

Before her conviction, the US Department of State had declared Griner to be “wrongfully detained” — a charge that Russia has sharply rejected.

In July, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken revealed that Washington had made a “substantial proposal” to get Griner home, along with Paul Whelan, an American serving a 16-year sentence in Russia for espionage.

Several news organisations have reported that Washington has offered to exchange Griner and Whelan for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who is serving a 25-year sentence in the US and once earned the nickname the “merchant of death”.

The White House said it has not yet received a productive response from Russia to the offer.

Brittney Griner being escorted after the final statements in a court hearing in Khimki outside Moscow [File: Evgenia Novozhenina/Pool via Reuters]

Last month, Biden met with Cherelle Griner, the wife of Brittney Griner, as well as the player’s agent, Lindsay Colas. Biden also sat down separately with Elizabeth Whelan, Paul Whelan’s sister.

The White House said after the meetings that the president stressed to the families his “continued commitment to working through all available avenues to bring Brittney and Paul home safely”.

On Sunday, former US Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson, who travelled to Moscow in September and met senior Russian officials, told CNN that Griner and Whelan may be released by the end of the year.

“I am cautiously optimistic on the Griner [and] Whelan negotiations,” said Richardson, who has worked privately to secure the release of American detainees abroad.

Richardson added that he thought an exchange of detainees would include two Russians in exchange for the two Americans. He did not identify the Russians or give an exact time frame.

Asked if the two Americans might be released by the end of the year, he said: “I do think so. Now, I hate making predictions, but yes.”

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