Biden says US ‘never stopped pushing’ for Brittney Griner release and will ‘never give up’ on Paul Whelan and others

“She represents the best of America,” said President Joe Biden on Thursday

Andrew Feinberg
Thursday 08 December 2022 20:34 GMT
Joe Biden says Brittney Griner is ‘on her way home’ after release from ‘hell’ of Russian prison

President Joe Biden said WNBA star Brittney Griner “will soon be back in the arms of loved ones” after nearly a year in the “intolerable circumstances” of Russian custody.

On Thursday, accompanied by Vice President Kamala Harris, Ms Griner’s wife Cherelle, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken in the White House’s Roosevelt Room, Mr Biden said Ms Griner’s release marked “a good morning” and “a day we’ve worked towards for a long time”.

“We never stopped pushing for her release. It took painstaking and intensive negotiations and I want to thank all the hard working public servants across my administration, who worked tirelessly to secure her release,” he said.

Mr Biden said Ms Griner was “in good spirits” when he spoke to her following her release early on Thursday, and he told reporters she would be back in the United States “in the next 24 hours”.

Ms Griner, he said, was “relieved to finally be heading home” after having “lost months of her life” and “experienced needless trauma” from her months-long detention in a series of Russian penal facilities.

“She deserves space privacy and time with their loved ones recover and heal from her time being wrongfully detained,” he said, adding that the two-time Olympic gold medalist “endured mistreatment and a show trial in Russia with characteristic grit and incredible dignity”.

“She represents the best of America,” he said.

Mr Biden later ceded the floor to Cherelle Griner, who has been a tireless advocate for her wife in the months since she was arrested at a Moscow airport by Russian customs officials who accused her of smuggling vaporiser cartridges with cannabis oil in them.

She said she was “overwhelmed with emotions” but she added that “the most important emotion” she felt at the moment was “sincere gratitude” for Mr Biden “and his entire administration”.

Continuing, she said she would not speak for her wife because she was not present, but said both of them would remain “committed to the work of getting every American home.” Cherelle’s statement notably includes Paul Whelan, the former US Marine who has spent years in Russian captivity and was initially part of a proposed prisoner swap floated by the US earlier this year.

Mr Whelan was included in a prisoner swap proposed by the US when officials offered to release Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in exchange for him and Ms Griner, but Mr Whelan was not released under the agreement executed on Tuesday.

The president denied prioritising the return of Ms Griner over Mr Whelan, telling reporters that there “was not a choice of which American to bring home".

Mr Biden said the US would “never give up” trying to free Mr Whelan, whose family was notified by the White House ahead of Ms Griner’s release becoming public.

White House officials who briefed reporters on the process leading to her release said Ms Griner was moved from the penal colony she had been at and taken to Moscow “a couple of days ago” while negotiations were ongoing. She was flown to the United Arab Emirates this morning for the prisoner swap.

An administration official said Ms Griner will be offered “a wide range of support” as part of a US government programme developed to help Americans who return home after being held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad.

“You probably won't hear much from us as a government as to those next steps. But it is important that folks realize that not only do we work hard to bring people home, but we work hard then to help them with that transition back to being home and all of that is of course available to to Brittany the way it is to every American we bring home,” the official said, adding that Ms Griner’s safe return is a product of “months and months of painstaking negotiations” and reflects “the culmination of extraordinary efforts” by the entire US government.

The official said the administration “had been and continued to engage in difficult negotiations” for the release of both Ms Griner and Mr Whelan over the past months, long after it became known that the US had floated a prisoner swap in which Ms Griner and Mr Whelan would have been exchanged for Mr Bout.

The official also said Mr Biden “personally tracked” the status of the talks and was kept updated on their progress.

“In recent days, we were able to reach agreement on an option to secure Brittany's release. President Biden made the difficult decision to accept that option because it resulted in a safe return home of an American. That is always our goal, to get wrongfully detained Americans home safely,” they said.

“While we celebrate Britney's homecoming, we remain committed to seeing Paul Whelan likewise released,” the official continued.

The official also said Mr Biden is prepared to “personally convey his commitment” to securing Mr Whelan’s release, but stressed that Russian officials were unwilling to part with Mr Whelan because they consider him a captured spy.

“Regrettably due to the nature of the sham espionage charges Russia levied against call the Russians have treated you to treat this situation differently from Brittany's and rejected each and every one of our proposals for his release,” the official said.

“I want to be very clear: This was not a situation where we had a choice of which American to bring home. It was a choice between bringing home one particular American, Brittney Griner, or bringing home no one”.

A second Biden administration official said they expect channels between the US and Russia to “remain open” regarding negotiations over Mr Whelan’s status.

“The Russians know directly from us in multiple channels how unacceptable we find his detention, how urgent we regard his release, how committed we are to breaking through the impasse and finding ways that will achieve the result for him that we're so delighted to achieve, to have achieved for Brittney today,” they said.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in