White House says Biden to meet with relatives of two Americans jailed in Russia

The White House has said that US President Joe Biden plans to meet with family members of basketball star Brittney Griner and former Marine Paul Whelan that are currently in jail in Russia.

More than a month after his administration announced it had proposed a deal for their return to Moscow, Biden will host separate meetings on Friday with Griner’s wife and Whelan’s sister.

Amid sustained but so far unsuccessful efforts by the administration to secure the Americans’ release, the separate meetings are to be the first in-person encounter between Biden and the families.

According to White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, “We would love to be saying today that we have news about Brittney and Paul coming home today. Unfortunately, that is not where the negotiations are at this time.”

Also read | Russia, US in talks over ‘Merchant of Death’ swap for basketballer Brittney Griner: Moscow

Experts believe that there is no sign that a breakthrough is imminent despite plans for the White House meetings.

Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) star Griner has been held in Russia since February on drug-related charges and was sentenced to nine years in prison last month after pleading guilty and has appealed the punishment.

After being convicted of spying in Russia, Whelan was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in jail even though his family called the espionage-related charges false.

Placing their cases with the office of its top hostage negotiator, the US government regards both as wrongfully detained.

Underscoring the administration’s commitment to bring them home, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in late July that Washington had made a “substantial offer” to Moscow to secure the return of the two Americans.

There have been few public developments on the issue over the past weeks although Russia’s foreign ministry said last month it was engaged in “quiet diplomacy” about a potential prisoner swap.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, negotiations are taking place amid ruptured relations between Washington and Moscow.

Saying such efforts could complicate official talks for their release, the State Department on Wednesday warned against private efforts to try to secure Griner and Whelan’s release after former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson travelled to Moscow.

(With inputs from agencies)

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