PHOENIX MERCURY

Russian Foreign Minister open to discuss prisoner swap involving Brittney Griner

Jul 29, 2022, 8:45 AM
WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner speaks to her lawyers standing in a ca...

WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner speaks to her lawyers standing in a cage at a court room prior to a hearing, in Khimki just outside Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, July 26, 2022. American basketball star Brittney Griner returns Tuesday to a Russian courtroom for her drawn-out trial on drug charges that could bring her 10 years in prison of convicted. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool)

(AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool)

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Friday that he’s open to a call with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to discuss a possible prisoner swap involving American basketball star Brittney Griner.

Blinken said Wednesday that Washington had offered Russia a deal that would bring home Griner and another jailed American, Paul Whelan. A person familiar with the matter said the U.S. government proposed trading convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for Whelan and Griner.

Speaking on a visit to Uzbekistan, Lavrov said his ministry had received an official U.S. request for a call after Blinken made the statement. Russia’s top diplomat said he would be ready once he returns to Moscow and that the timing of the call was being worked out.

Lavrov said he was open to discussing the prisoner exchange, even though the Foreign Ministry hasn’t been involved in previous discussions on the issue.

“I will listen to what he has to say,” Lavrov added.

Asked Thursday about the U.S. offer, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov replied that prisoner swaps were typically negotiated discreetly behind the scenes.

“We know that such issues are discussed without any such release of information,” Peskov told reporters during a conference call. “Normally, the public learns about it when the agreements are already implemented.”

Blinken’s comments marked the first time the U.S. government publicly revealed any concrete action it has taken to secure Griner’s release. The two-time Olympic gold medalist and player for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury was arrested at a Moscow airport in mid-February when inspectors found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage.

Griner’s arrest came at a time of heightened tensions between Moscow and Washington ahead of Russia sending troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24. Griner’s five months of detention have raised strong criticism among teammates and supporters in the United States.

Her trial on drug charges started in a court outside Moscow this month, and she testified Wednesday that she didn’t know how the cartridges ended up in her bag but that she had a doctor’s recommendation to use cannabis to treat career-related pain.

The 31-year-old has pleaded guilty but said she had no criminal intent in bringing the cartridges to Russia and packed in haste for her return to play in a Russian basketball league during the WNBA’s offseason. She faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of transporting drugs.

The Biden administration has faced political pressure to free Griner and other Americans whom the U.S. has declared to be “wrongfully detained” — a designation sharply rejected by Russian officials.

Whelan, a corporate security executive from Michigan, was sentenced to 16 years in prison on espionage charges in 2020. He and his family have vigorously asserted his innocence. The U.S. government has denounced the charges as false.

Russia has for years expressed interest in the release of Bout, a Russian arms dealer once labeled the “Merchant of Death.” He was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2012 on charges that he schemed to illegally sell millions of dollars in weapons.

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