WASHINGTON (AP) – President Joe Biden said on Wednesday that he hopes Russian President Vladimir Putin will be more willing to negotiate the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner now that the United States (US) midterm elections are over.
“My hope is that now that the election is over, Putin will be able to discuss with us and be willing to talk more seriously about a prisoner exchange,” Biden told reporters at a news conference.
He spoke hours after Griner’s lawyers revealed that she had been sent to a penal colony to serve her sentence for drug possession.
US officials have tried to negotiate the release of Griner and another American jailed in Russia, Paul Whelan for months. But there have been no overt signs of progress.
A diplomatic resolution has taken on new urgency after a Russian court rejected an appeal for her nine-year sentence last month. The eight-time all-star centre with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and two-time Olympic gold medalist was convicted on August 4 after police said they found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport.
Her arrest came at a time of heightened tensions between Moscow and Washington, just days before Russia sent troops into Ukraine, and the politically charged case could lead to a high-stakes prisoner exchange between Washington and Moscow.
“Every minute that Brittney Griner must endure wrongful detention in Russia is a minute too long,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.
“As we have said before, the US Government made a significant offer to the Russians to resolve the current unacceptable and wrongful detentions of American citizens.”
Griner’s legal team said she left a detention centre outside Moscow on November 4 for a penal colony – as prisons in Russia are commonly known. The move was expected since she lost her appeal.
Such transfers can take days or even weeks, during which time lawyers and loved ones usually don’t have contact with the prisoner. Even after she arrives, access to Griner may be difficult since many penal colonies are in remote parts of Russia.
Her lawyers said on Wednesday that they did not know exactly where she was or where she would end up – but that they expected to be notified when she reached her final destination.
In a statement stressing the work being done to secure Griner’s release, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken insisted that Russian authorities give the embassy regular access to Griner, as they are required to do. Officials at the US Embassy in Moscow visited Griner last week.