President Biden blasted Russia for sentencing Brittney Griner to 9 years in a penal colony for cannabis possession and smuggling, calling the decision “unacceptable.”
“Today, American citizen Brittney Griner received a prison sentence that is one more reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney,” Biden said in a statement released by the White House.
“It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates,” he continued.
“My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible.”
The president’s promise comes just one week after reports revealed the Biden administration pitched trading notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout, known as the “Merchant of Death,” for Griner and former Marine Paul Whelan.
In April, the US successfully conducted a prisoner exchange with Russia, swapping former Marine Trevor Reed for Russia pilot and “international drug trafficker” Konstantin Yaroshenko.
Reed has since accused the White House of “not doing enough” to bring Whelan and Griner home.
Griner’s slow-moving case and her nearly six months behind bars have raised strong criticism among her supporters in the United States, including her wife, Cherelle, that Biden was not doing enough to win her freedom.
Griner sent a personal appeal to Biden, and more than 1,100 Black female leaders urged the administration to “make a deal to get Brittney back home swiftly and safely and to meet with Brittney’s wife Cherelle immediately.” Biden later called Cherelle Griner “to reassure her that he is working to secure Brittney’s release as soon as possible,” the White House said July 6.
Cherelle Griner, who also spoke with Vice President Kamala Harris, later said she was “grateful to the both of them for the time they spent with me and for the commitment they expressed to getting BG home,” using her wife’s initials.
The Biden administration also faced criticism from Whelan’s family, who voiced their frustration with the president early last month after Biden took the time to call Griner’s wife to reassure her of the efforts being made to free the basketball star.
“To begin with, we don’t begrudge the Griner family and their supporters any of the attention that they’re getting from the president,” Whelan’s sister Elizabeth told CNN. “I mean, it’s really wonderful. They have resources far beyond what our family does.
“I think our concern is, you know, why the outreach to some families and not others?” Elizabeth Whelan added. “There are 55-plus families who would like to have that same degree of attention. My brother’s written to both presidents [Trump and Biden] and people throughout Congress, hundreds and hundreds of letters during the 3 1/2 years that he’s been held.”
Not long after, Biden called the Whelan family to assure them of his commitment to bringing Paul home safely as well as Griner. Whelan is currently serving a 16-year sentence after being arrested in Moscow on espionage charges in 2018.
The administration has avoided confirming whether the trade deal with Bout will succeed, however the arms dealer’s lawyer is “confident” it will happen.
“I’m confident that this is going to get done,” Steve Zissou told CNN, later adding of Moscow: “Look, it’s no secret, they’ve been wanting him back for several years now. They’ve been trying to get him back for decades. That’s not something they’ve ever kept secret.”
Bout is serving 25 years in a US prison after he was convicted in 2011 of conspiracy to kill Americans, providing aid to a terrorist organization, and other charges.
Last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to accept a “substantial proposal” to bring Griner and Whelan home.
Ahead of her sentencing Thursday, Griner pleaded with the court for leniency, claiming she did not mean to bring the cannabis into the country.
“I want the court to understand that this was an honest mistake that I made while rushing, under stress, trying to recover from COVID and just trying to get back to my team,” Griner said, referring to the vape cartridges found in her luggage on her way to Russia in February.
“I know everybody keeps talking about political pawn and politics, but I hope that is far from this courtroom,” she added. “I made an honest mistake and I hope that in your ruling, that it doesn’t end my life here.”
— with Associated Press
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