Families urge the US to release WNBA star Brittney Griner and former US Marine Paul Whelan, who is being 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 the release of two US citizens from detention in Russia.
Biden sat in the Oval Office Friday with Cherelle Griner, Griner’s wife, and Elizabeth Whelan, the ex-Marine’s sister.
Meetings began shortly before 5 p.m. (21:00 GMT), the White House said.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said earlier this week that Biden hoped the face-to-face talks will show the families “that they are continuing to lead the way” for the US government.
“While I would like to say that the purpose of this meeting is to inform the families that the Russians have accepted our offer and that we are bringing their loved ones home, that is not what we are seeing in these negotiations at the moment,” Jean -Pierre told reporters.
Griner, a Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) and two-time Olympic gold medalist, was sentenced last month to nine years in prison for drug possession.
She was arrested in February, days before Russia launched a large-scale invasion of Ukraine, and her case has been moved through the Russian justice system amid shaky relations between Moscow and Washington over the war.
Whelan, a naval veteran, was sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2020 on charges of espionage.
The US State Department has called the detention of both US citizens unjustified.
Earlier on Friday, a White House National Security Council spokesman said negotiations with Moscow to secure the release of the two Americans are underway.
“The president felt it was important to continue the dialogue with the family members… We have kept in touch with them throughout; we kept them updated the whole time,” John Kirby told reporters.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in July that Washington made a “substantial proposal” to Moscow to release Griner and Whelan.
Several US media outlets reported around the time that the Biden administration was offering a prisoner exchange involving a Russian arms dealer held in the US.
On Friday, Kirby told reporters that Russia has not responded to that offer, “but that doesn’t mean we aren’t still negotiating or that we aren’t still trying.”
Moscow last month said it was “ready” to negotiate a prisoner swap deal with Washington.
Meanwhile, Griner’s family, teammates and supporters have called on the US government to put its full weight behind the case and push for her release.
Griner was accused of bringing vape cans of cannabis oil to Russia, where she would play for a basketball team in Yekaterinburg.
Despite deteriorating ties between Washington and Moscow, Russia released Trevor Reed, a former US Marine, in April. In return, the US released Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was serving a 20-year prison sentence in the US for drug possession.