WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden said Wednesday he hopes Russian President Vladimir Putin will be more willing to negotiate the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner now that the US midterm elections are over.
“My hope is that now that the election is over, Mr. Putin will be able to discuss with us and be willing to talk more seriously about a prisoner swap,” Biden told reporters at a news conference.
He spoke hours after Griner’s attorneys revealed she had been sent to a penal colony to serve out her sentence for drug possession.
US officials have been trying for months to negotiate the release of Griner and another American jailed in Russia, Paul Whelan. But there were no obvious signs of progress.
A diplomatic resolution has taken on new urgency after a Russian court rejected an appeal against her nine-year sentence Last month. The eight-time All-Star center featuring the WNBA and two-time Olympic gold medalist Phoenix Mercury was sentenced Aug. 4 after police said they found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in their luggage at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport.
Her arrest came at a time of heightened tensions between Moscow and Washington, just days before Russia deployed troops to Ukraineand the politically charged case could lead to a high-level prisoner swap between Washington and Moscow.
“Every minute that Brittney Griner has to be unjustly detained in Russia is a minute too long,” said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. “As we have said, the US government has made a significant offer to the Russians to end the current unacceptable and unlawful detentions of American citizens.”
Griner’s legal team said she left a detention center outside Moscow on Nov. 4 for a penal colony — as prisons are commonly called in Russia. The move was expected as she lost her appeal.
Such transfers can take days or even weeks, during which lawyers and relatives usually have no contact with the prisoner. Even after they arrive, accessing Griner can be difficult as many penal colonies are located in remote parts of Russia.
Her lawyers said on Wednesday they didn’t know exactly where she was or where she would end up – but they expected to be notified when she reached her final destination.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in a statement emphasizing efforts to secure Griner’s release, insisted that Russian authorities grant the embassy regular access to Griner, as required by them. Officials from the US Embassy in Moscow visited Griner last week.
A senior State Department official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the case, said the Russians had not notified American diplomats of Griner’s transfer in advance and had not yet responded to inquiries from the American embassy about her current whereabouts or ultimate goal.
In many penal colonies, prisoners work for minimal pay, and dissidents and other countries have denounced the prisoners’ conditions. Jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny went on a hunger strike to protest his treatment, including the refusal by officers to give him the correct medication and allow his doctor to visit him behind bars.
He also protested hourly nightly checks by a guard, saying it was like torture through sleep deprivation.
Griner, 32, who was arrested while returning to play for a Russian team during the WNBA’s offseason, has admitted she had the canisters in her luggage. But she testified that she accidentally packed them in a hurry and that she had no criminal intent. Her defense team submitted written statements that her cannabis had been prescribed to treat pain.
The Associated Press and other news organizations have reported that Washington has offered to swap Griner and Whelan – an American serving a 16-year sentence in Russia for espionage – for Viktor Bout. Bout is a Russian arms dealer serving a 25-year sentence in the US and once earned the nickname “dealer of death.”
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee and Eric Tucker contributed to this report from Washington.
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