Brittney Griner sentence renews pressure on President Biden

WASHINGTON – Immediately after a judge in Moscow issued Brittney Grinerthe nine-year prison sentence on Thursday, the calls grew louder for President Biden to find a way to bring her home.

“We urge President Biden and the United States government to redouble their efforts to do whatever is necessary and possible,” Father Al Sharpton said in a statement.

U.S. officials and analysts had to resign a guilty verdict given to Griner, a basketball star who was playing for a Russian team during the WNBA season. But the cold reality of her conviction on drug charges is a shock and fresh calls for Mr Biden to secure her release – even as critics say the swap offer prisoner with Moscow reward for the Russian hostage taking.

The result has been a painful difficulty for the Biden administration as it tries to maintain a hardline stance against Russian President Vladimir Putin over his war in Ukraine.

“There is nothing good here,” said Andrea Schneider, an expert in international conflict resolution at Cardozo Law School. “No matter what Biden does, he’s going to be criticized – that we’ve given too much or that we haven’t worked hard enough.”

Kremlin officials have said that any potential deal cannot go ahead before her trial is complete, creating a glimmer of hope that the ruling could open the door to an exchange. But analysts say that is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

“I don’t think this will be resolved anytime soon,” said Jared Genser, a human rights lawyer who represents Americans held by foreign governments. “I think the fact that Putin didn’t say yes right away means that he considered the American offer and said, ‘Well, that was their first offer. I can get more than that. ‘”

The US offer, first presented to Russia in June, seeks the release of Ms. Griner and Ms. Paul N. Whelana former marine arrested in Moscow and convicted of espionage in 2020.

Biden administration proposes swapping two Americans for notorious people Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was serving a 25-year federal prison sentence for selling weapons to a Colombian rebel group that the United States then considered a terrorist organization.

The proposal has reshaped US foreign policy towards Russia, which has been frozen at high levels since Mr. Putin’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine. The July 29 phone call between Foreign Minister Antony J. Blinken and his Russian counterpart, Sergey V. Lavrov, was their first conversation since the war began. But it seems to leave the Kremlin unmoved. The White House said that Russia had issued an unspecified “bad faith” counter-action that the United States did not take seriously.

On Friday, Lavrov told reporters that the two countries would continue to discuss the issue through established channels. He repeated the Kremlin’s assertion that the United States does not discuss the negotiations publicly, even though Russian media outlets began linking Mr. Bout’s case to Ms. Griner’s earlier this summer.

But the pressure is deflected. While Mr. Putin has long sought to release Mr. Bout, perhaps out of loyalty to a man with deep ties to Russia’s security situation, the arms dealer’s continued imprisonment makes Putin paid very little. In other words, time is going in Putin’s favor.

On the other hand, Mr. Biden found himself pressed from both sides.

On one side are the supporters of Mrs. Griner. Her wife, Cherelle Griner, has publicly demanded that Biden cut the deal with Putin as soon as possible. Those pleas were echoed on social media by Mr Sharpton, Democratic activist groups, television pundits, professional athletes and celebrities. (Mr Sharpton on Thursday also called for Mr Whelan’s release.)

“How can she feel like America has her back?” NBA superstar LeBron James said in mid-July. “I would feel like, ‘Do I even want to go back to America?'”

That was before Mr. Biden’s proposal to free Mr. Bout was made public. Officials said they disclosed the offer, confirmed last week by a person briefed on the negotiations, to increase pressure on Russia. But the revelation may also reflect a desire to show Ms. Griner’s supporters that Mr Biden is not on his hands.

“We believe it is important for the American people to know how President Biden is working to bring Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan home,” said John F. Kirby, White House national security spokesman, said at that time. “We think it’s important for their families to know how hard we’re working to address this.”

Following Griner’s conviction on Thursday, Mr Biden continued to pledge “to pursue every avenue possible to get Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible.”

However, the White House would not say how Mr. Biden might achieve that goal. “I don’t think it would be helpful to Brittany or Paul for us to talk more publicly about our position in the negotiations and what the president may or may not be willing to do,” Mr Kirby said.

But almost any additional offer is sure to amplify criticism from Mr Biden’s other side – and accusations that Mr Biden has manipulated Mr. Putin, a man he calls Mr. war criminal.

“This is why authoritarian regimes – like Venezuela, Iran, China, Russia – take Americans hostage, because they know they will get something for it,” said Representative Mike. Waltz, Republican of Florida, told Newsmax last week. “They know eventually some government will pay. And this just puts the target in the backs of every American out there. “

Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state, echoed the criticism in a Fox News interview last week, saying that releasing Mr Bout would “likely lead to more” Americans being arrested in the country. outside. And former President Donald J. Trump, who while in office boasted of the release of Americans detained abroad, scuttled the proposed deal on crude terms.

Mr. Bout, he said, is “absolutely one of the worst people in the world, and he will be set free because a potentially corrupt person has come to Russia laden with drugs.” (Russian officials who detained Ms. Griner at an airport in the Moscow region in mid-February found less than a gram of cannabis vape oil in her bag.)

Mr. Genser, an attorney for other detained Americans, noted that Mr. Biden had an option but to raise his offer. He may be looking for new ways to make Putin suffer.

“You need to significantly increase the cost to Vladimir Putin of keeping them in custody,” Genser said. “It’s not just about giving Putin what he wants. It is at the same time heightening the pain for him. “

However, that is not an easy task. Biden administration officials have spent months trying to figure out how to inflict enough pain on Putin to get him to stop invading Ukraine. Like the freedom of Mrs. Griner and Mr. Whelan, that goal is elusive.

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