Biden to Meet With Families of Russian Detainees Brittney Griner, Paul Whelan

The meetings with Griner and Whelan's families will be held separately

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The families of WNBA star Brittney Griner and former Marine Paul Whelan will meet with President Joe Biden on Friday, as the White House continues to push for their release from detention in Russia.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre confirmed the scheduled meetings at a press briefing Thursday.

“One of the things the President wanted to make clear is and one of the reasons he is meeting with the families is that he wanted to let them know they remain front of mind. His team is working on this every day,” Jean-Pierre said.

The news was first reported by The Associated Press. According to NBC News, the meetings will be with Griner’s wife, Cherelle, and Whelan’s sister, Elizabeth.

Griner was sentenced to nine years in jail by a Moscow court last month after she was arrested at a Moscow airport on Feb. 17 . Authorities said they found cannabis-infused vape cartridges in her luggage. Griner’s defense team is appealing the sentence.

Whelan has been detained since 2018 and is serving a 16-year sentence. The Michigan corporate security executive is imprisoned on an espionage conviction he and his family says is baseless.

Jean-Pierre reiterated Thursday, that the U.S. government believes both have been wrongfully detained.

“As you know, we have been directly engaged with the Russian government through appropriate channels. We made a significant offer a couple of months ago through the same channels we used for Trevor Reed,” she said. “We have followed up on that offer repeatedly and will continue to pursue every avenue to bring them home safely.”

Brian Whitmore, a Russia and Eurasia specialist and adjunct assistant professor at The University of Texas at Arlington, said the planned meetings between President Biden and the families are significant.

“It’s basically showing the administration is on this. We knew they were,” Whitmore said.

Whitmore adds, a realistic deal or prisoner swap could be complicated.

“We know what the Russians want. They want a man named Viktor Bout. Viktor Bout has been in U.S. federal prison since 2011,” he said. “This is a bad guy. He’s also a bad guy who is also connected at the highest levels of the Russian government. He’s believed to be a veteran of the Russian security services and the Russian military intelligence.”

Bout, a Russian arms dealer, has been serving a 25-year prison sentence in the U.S. NBC News reported in July, the U.S. had offered to exchange Griner and Whelan for Bout. Russia said after Griner’s sentencing that it was ready to discuss the possibility of a swap.

“This was a man who was trafficking weapons to terrorists to kill Americans. Do we want to give up somebody like that?” Whitmore said. “The asymmetrical nature of this exchange is troublesome, on one hand. It also encourages further Russian hostage-taking in the future.”

The meetings with Griner and Whelan’s families will take place separately.

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