WNBA star Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan are two Americans being held in Russian prisons. The United States regards them as wrongful detainees. For the first time since early August, officials at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow were allowed to visit Brittney.
On August 4, Brittney was found guilty of drug possession and smuggling. She was sentenced to nine years in prison. Almost two weeks ago, her plea for leniency was denied. This all started after Brittney’s luggage was inspected at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport and canisters of cannabis oil were found on February 17. She produced a doctor’s letter saying Brittney is prescribed the cannabis for pain relief. Russia, like other countries, has strict drug laws. She could have been sentenced to 10 years but was given 9. Brittney said it was a mistake, an oversight when she was packing and she apologized.
Nonetheless, State Department officials are trying to strike a deal with Russian officials for her release, and that of Paul Whelan. Whelan, a former Marine, is charged with espionage. He has been detained in a remote prison camp in Russia on espionage charges since 2018. The last contact the embassy officials had with Brittney was on October 18, her birthday, when they were able to speak with her over the phone.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a tweet that the American representatives “saw firsthand her tenacity and perseverance despite her present circumstances.”
Price said the Biden administration is continuing to press for the immediate release of Griner and Paul Whelan, who was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison in Russia on espionage-related charges that he and his family say are bogus, and “fair treatment for every detained American.”
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Griner “is doing as well as can be expected under the circumstances” and that the administration was working “to resolve the current unacceptable and wrongful detentions” of Griner and Whelan.”
Griner played for a Russian team during the WNBA’s offseason. The case has been complicated due to Putin’s invasion in Ukraine. The United States is the biggest contributor to Ukraine in its fight against Russia. The State Department is trying to negotiate a prisoner swap – Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for Griner and Whelan. Secretary of State Blinken hasn’t been able to close the deal. The administration remains hopeful that a deal can be struck.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Thursday that the Biden administration was told that Griner is “doing as well as can be expected under the circumstances.”
Jean-Pierre said that securing the freedom of Griner and Whelan, a U.S. citizen and former Marine who has been detained in Russia since 2019, continues to be a “top priority” for the White House.
“As we have said before, the U.S. government made a significant offer to the Russians to resolve the current unacceptable and wrongful, wrongful detentions of American citizens Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan,” Jean-Pierre said. “I can also tell you that in the subsequent weeks, despite a lack of good faith negotiation by the Russians, the U.S. government has continued to follow up on that offer and propose alternative potential ways forward with Russians through all available channels.”
Price previously expressed concern about the irregular access to Americans detained in Russia.
“We continue to impart on the Russian government the necessity of consistency and regular consular access to Brittney Griner but also to all of those Americans who are detained in Russia,” Price said last month.
Griner’s case was classified as “wrongfully detained” on May 3 by the U.S. government. This designation means the U.S. will more aggressively work to negotiate her release even as the legal case against her plays out. Paul Whelan also has this designation.