President Joe Biden on Friday is set to meet with family members of American basketball star Brittney Griner, who remains held in a Russian prison on drug charges.
Biden will also meet with the family of Paul Whelan, an American who has been imprisoned in Russia since 2018 on espionage charges.
The Associated Press reported that the “separate meetings are to be the first in-person encounter between Biden and the families and are taking place amid sustained but so far unsuccessful efforts by the administration to secure the Americans’ release.”
“He wanted to let them know that they remain front of mind and that his team is working on this every day, on making sure that Brittney and Paul return home safely,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at a press briefing on Thursday at the White House, as quoted by the Associated Press.
She was found guilty by a Russian court last month and sentenced to nine-and-a-half years in prison.
Her detention has become a symbol in the deteriorating U.S.-Russia relations, and has reached the top levels of diplomacy in both countries.
The United States has sought a prisoner swap that would see the release of both Griner and Whelan in exchange for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who is currently serving a 25-year prison sentence in the U.S.
“While I would love to say that the purpose of this meeting is to inform the families that the Russians have accepted our offer and we are bringing their loved ones home — that is not what we’re seeing in these negotiations at this time,” Jean-Pierre said on Thursday, as quoted by the Associated Press. “The Russians should accept our offer. The Russians should accept our offer today.”
Griner’s legal team filed an appeal of the conviction last month, a process that will likely take months.
Griner, who plays for the Phoenix Mercury of the WNBA, pleaded guilty to the drug charges, but insisted that she did not intend to break the law.
She was traveling back to Russia to play for UMMC Ekaterinburg, the Russian team she plays for during the WNBA’s offseason.
“I want to apologize to my teammates, my club, my fans and the city of (Yekaterinburg) for my mistake that I made and the embarrassment that I brought on them,” Griner said in the Russian courtroom last month as she plead for leniency. “I want to also apologize to my parents, my siblings, the Phoenix Mercury organization back at home, the amazing women of the WNBA, and my amazing spouse back at home.”
Following Griner’s sentencing last month, Biden denounced the ruling.
“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 his statement.
“It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates,” Biden said.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has also condemned the conviction.
“It puts a spotlight on our very significant turn with Russia’s legal system and the Russian government’s use of wrongful detentions to advance its own agenda using individuals as political pawns,” Blinken said last month.
Blinken has called the United States’ offered prisoner exchange a “substantial proposal.”
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