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Biden Administration Proposes Prisoner Swap To Free Brittney Griner

Anthony Blinken, Secretary of State of the United States of America revealed Wednesday that it offered to free a Russian arms dealer currently held in American custody in exchange for Brittney Griner (WNBA star) and Paul Whelan (both U.S citizens being held in Russian prisons). Blinken added that the U.S. had presented a “substantial proposal” for the release of Griner and Whelan, who have been classified as “wrongfully detained” by the Department of State.

Blinken said at a State Department news conference on Wednesday that President Joseph Biden was “directly involved” and had approved the proposal. He did not specifically confirm that Bout was part of the proposed exchange, saying that he “can’t and won’t get into any of the details of what we proposed to the Russians over the course of so many weeks now,” according to a report from CNN.

Blinken continued that “in terms of the President, of course he was not only directly involved, he signs off on any proposal that we make, and certainly when it comes to Americans who are being arbitrarily detained abroad, including in this specific case.”

Undisclosed sources close to the matter told CNN that the president’s support for the prisoner exchange trumped opposition from the Department of Justice, which generally opposes such deals as a matter of course.

Russian authorities were quick to note that the U.S. proposal was not accepted. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Thursday that “so far, there is no agreement on this issue.”

Blinken said that he planned to discuss the issue with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during a telephone call this week, adding that “my hope would be that in speaking to Foreign Minister Lavrov, I can advance the efforts to bring them home.”

“There is in my mind utility in conveying clear, direct messages to the Russians on key priorities for us,” Blinken said. “And as I mentioned, these include securing the return home of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan.”

Griner arrested for Cannabis Possession

Griner, the star center for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and a two-time women’s basketball Olympic champion, was arrested by Russian authorities at an airport outside Moscow in February after customs officials allegedly found vape cartridges containing less than one gram of cannabis oil in her luggage. Griner has pleaded not guilty to all charges, and she could face up to 10 year imprisonment. The trial of Griner continues in Kimki, a Moscow suburb. Authorities will hear more testimony to determine her fate.

Russian authorities have held Whelan since 2018 for espionage. Griner, Whelan, and Viktor Bout would be exchanging their Russian citizenship for Griner, who was convicted in 2018 of weapons trafficking. Whelan is currently in prison serving a 25-year sentence in the United States.

Viktor Bout. Photo by Christophe Archambault/AFP via Getty Images

A senior Biden administration official said that the Russian government was unresponsive to the “substantial offer” presented in June, adding that “it takes two to tango.”

“We start all negotiations to bring home Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained with a bad actor on the other side. We start all of these with somebody who has taken a human being American and treated them as a bargaining chip,” the official said. “So in some ways, it’s not surprising, even if it’s disheartening, when those same actors don’t necessarily respond directly to our offers, don’t engage constructively in negotiations.”

The official did not reveal the conditions of the offer, saying it was in Russia’s “court to be responsive to it, yet at the same time that does not leave us passive, as we continue to communicate the offer at very senior levels.”

John Kirby, National Security Council Strategic Coordinator for Communications, stated Wednesday that officials from Biden’s administration had met with Griner and Whelan families before Blinken made the prisoner swap offer. The White House will work to bring the Americans home, he said.

“We urge the Russians to move positively on that proposal, so we can get these two individuals home,” Kirby said. “The details of it, I think, are best left between us and our Russian counterparts.”

The Kremlin was apparently unhappy that the Biden administration made the offer public. It noted, however, that most prisoner swap deals can be negotiated discretely.

“We know that such issues are discussed without any such release of information,” Peskov told reporters during a conference call. “Normally, the public learns about it when the agreements are already implemented.”

Griner’s attorneys, Alexander Boykov and Maria Blagovolina, said that the WNBA star’s trial will have to conclude before an exchange can be negotiated.

“From a legal point of view, the exchange is possible only after a court verdict,” the lawyers said, as quoted by the Russian media outlet RBC. “In any case, we will be glad if Brittney is soon at home and we hope that this will happen.”