The U.S. State Department has confirmed that they are still involved in negotiations to free Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, two American citizens currently behind bars in Russia.
Accused of spying, former marine Paul Whelan was arrested in Russia on Dec. 28, 2018, and is currently serving a 16-year prison sentence.
Whelan’s twin brother David said that Paul was only in Moscow to attend the wedding of a friend and fellow former marine.
With Whelan also being a British passport holder, then U.K. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said in Jan 2019: “We don’t agree with individuals being used in diplomatic chess games… We are all extremely worried about him and his family.”
Brittney Griner, a professional basketball player from Houston, Texas, was arrested in Russia on drugs charges in Feb. 2022, shortly before Moscow launched its illegal invasion of Ukraine.
Griner was detained at an airport in Russia after allegedly being caught carrying vaporizer cartridges containing less than a gram of hash oil – a substance banned in Russia. She has been sentenced to nine years in prison.
The following month, the U.S. State Department concluded that Griner was being “wrongfully detained”, while some American politicians claimed she was being held as a “political pawn”.
On Oct. 9, former U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Bill Richardson, said that he was “cautiously optimistic” a deal will be reached to release the pair.
The former Democrat governor of New Mexico, who founded a center that works on behalf of hostages and political prisoners, said he hoped they would be released by the end of the year.
Asked by CNN presenter Jake Tapper on Oct. 9 if he believes Griner and Whelan would be released by the end of the year, Richardson said: “I do think so. I hate making predictions, but yes.”
“All I can say is that the Biden administration is working hard on it,” he added. “So am I. We coordinate, but do not always agree on every tactical decision. I’m not going to interfere in their process. I’m just giving you my assessment after two visits to Russia on behalf of American hostages.”
Negotiations have yet to secure the release of the two Americans, with State Department Spokesperson Ned Price saying on Oct. 23 that, despite talks having taken place “including in recent days,” the discussions “have not gotten to the point where we would like them to be.”
“We put forward a substantial proposal a number of months ago now,” said Price. “We have consistently urged our Russian counterparts to act on this proposal.”
Price added that no attempts had been made to pressure for a reduction in sentences. He said that U.S. officials “have not weighed in on” the various judicial proceedings and judicial steps because “as we’ve made clear, we believe that these proceedings have been largely shambolic.”
Meanwhile, a verdict is expected over Griner’s appeal on Oct. 25.
“She is prepared for the appeal and is very nervous,” her lawyer, Maria Blagovolina said in a statement issued on the evening of Oct. 24. “Brittney does not expect any miracles to happen, but hopes that the appeal court will hear the arguments of the defense and reduce the number of years.”
“We see her often,” Blagovolina added. “Brittney is mentally very strong and has a champion’s character. However, she of course has her highs and lows as she is under an increasing amount of stress and has been separated from her loved ones for over eight months.”
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