Biden meets families of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan at White House

US president welcomes family members of Americans detained in Russia

US President Joe Biden meets families of Russian detainees in the Oval Office of the White House. Bloomberg
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US President Joe Biden on Friday is meeting family members of WNBA star Brittney Griner and another American detained in Russia, Paul Whelan.

The meetings at the White House are the first face-to-face encounter between the president and the relatives of Griner and Mr Whelan. The meetings, held in the Oval Office, began shortly before 5pm, the White House said.

Administration officials said the sessions are meant to underscore Mr Biden's commitment to bringing home Americans held overseas and to establish a personal connection, but are not an indication that negotiations with Russia for their release have reached a breakthrough.

John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said on Friday that Russia has not responded to what administration officials have called a substantial and serious offer to secure the two detainees' release.

“The president is not going to let up,” Mr Kirby told reporters on Friday before the president's meetings with the families.

“He's confident that this is going to remain in the forefront of his mind and his team's mind, and they're going to continue to work as hard as they can.”

Griner has been held in Russia since February on drug-related charges. She was sentenced last month to nine years in prison after pleading guilty and has appealed the punishment.

Mr Whelan is serving a 16-year sentence on espionage-related charges that he and his family say are false. The US government regards both as wrongfully detained, placing their cases with the office of its top hostage negotiator.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken took the unusual step of announcing two months ago that the administration had made a substantial proposal to Russia. ]

Though he did not elaborate on the proposal, a person familiar with the matter said the US has offered to release convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

The administration carried out a prisoner swap last April, with Moscow releasing veteran Trevor Reed in exchange for the US releasing a Russian pilot, Konstantin Yaroshenko, convicted in a drug trafficking conspiracy.

Jake Sullivan, the president's national security adviser, is participating in both meetings.

Mr Biden is sitting down with Elizabeth Whelan, the sister of Paul Whelan, and in a separate session, the president is meeting Cherelle Griner, the wife of Brittney Griner, as well as the player's agent, Lindsay Colas, the White House said.

Updated: September 16, 2022, 10:58 PM