Families are pushing US to secure release of WNBA star Brittney Griner and former US Marine Paul Whelan, held in Russia.
US President Joe Biden has met with the families of basketball star Brittney Griner and former marine Paul Whelan, amid ongoing efforts in Washington to secure two American citizens’ release from detention in Russia.
Biden sat down in the Oval Office on Friday with Cherelle Griner, the wife of Griner, and Elizabeth Whelan, the ex-marine’s sister.
The meetings began shortly before 5pm (21:00 GMT), the White House said.
Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, said earlier this week that Biden hoped the face-to-face talks will show the families “that they remain front of mind” for the United States administration.
“While I would love to say that the purpose of this meeting is to inform the families that the Russians have accepted our offer and we are bringing their loved-ones home, that is not what we’re seeing in these negotiations at this time,” Jean-Pierre told reporters.
Griner, a Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) and two-time Olympic gold medallist, was sentenced to nine years in jail last month over drug charges.
She was arrested in February, days before Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and her case has moved through the Russian court system amid frayed relations between Moscow and Washington over the war.
Whelan, a Marine veteran, was sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2020 on espionage charges.
The US State Department has called the detention of both US citizens unjustified.
Earlier on Friday, a White House National Security Council spokesperson said negotiations with Moscow to secure the two Americans’ release are ongoing.
“The president felt it was important to continue the dialogue with the family members … We have stayed in touch with them throughout; we have kept them informed throughout,” John Kirby told reporters.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in July that Washington made a “substantial proposal” to Moscow to free Griner and Whelan.
Several US media outlets reported around that time that the Biden administration offered a prisoner exchange involving a Russian arms dealer detained in the US.
On Friday, Kirby told reporters that Russia has not responded to that offer, “but that doesn’t mean that we’re not still in negotiations or we’re not still trying”.
Moscow said last month that it was “ready” to discuss a prisoner swap deal with Washington.
Meanwhile, Griner’s relatives, teammates and supporters have been calling on the US government to put its full weight behind the case to push for her release.
Griner was accused of bringing vape canisters containing cannabis oil into Russia, where she was set to play for a basketball team in Yekaterinburg.
Despite the deteriorating ties between Washington and Moscow, Russia in April freed Trevor Reed, a former US marine. In exchange, the US released Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was serving a 20-year sentence in the US over drug charges.