Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Friday he was open to a call with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to discuss a possible prisoner swap involving US basketball star Brittney Griner.
Blinken said Wednesday that Washington had offered Russia a deal that would bring back Griner and another imprisoned American, Paul Whelan. A person familiar with the matter said the US government was offering to trade convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for Whelan and Griner.
Speaking during a visit to Uzbekistan, Lavrov said his ministry received an official request from the United States for an appeal after Blinken made the statement. The head of Russian diplomacy said he would be ready once back in Moscow and the timing of the call was being worked out.
Lavrov said he was open to discussing the prisoner swap, although the Foreign Ministry has not been involved in previous discussions on the issue.
“I will listen to what he has to say,” Lavrov added.
Asked about the US offer on Thursday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said prisoner swaps were usually negotiated quietly behind the scenes.
“We know that such issues are discussed without any disclosure of information,” Peskov told reporters on a conference call. “Normally the public learns about it when the agreements are already implemented.”
Blinken’s comments marked the first time the US government has publicly revealed any concrete steps it has taken to secure Griner’s release. The two-time Olympic gold medalist and WNBA Phoenix Mercury player was arrested in mid-February at a Moscow airport 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 before Russia sent troops to Ukraine on February 24. Griner’s five months in detention drew heavy criticism among his teammates and supporters in the United States.
Her drug trafficking trial began this month in a court outside Moscow, and she testified on Wednesday that she did not know how the cartridges ended up in her bag, but that she was given the doctor’s recommendation to use cannabis to treat career pain.
The 31-year-old pleaded guilty but said she had no criminal intent to bring the cartridges to Russia and had hastily packed her return to play in a Russian basketball league during the WNBA offseason. She faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of transporting drugs.
The Biden administration has faced political pressure to release Griner and other Americans whom the United States has declared “wrongfully detained” – a designation strongly rejected by Russian officials.
Whelan, a Michigan corporate security official, was sentenced to 16 years in prison for espionage in 2020. He and his family have vigorously asserted his innocence. The US government has denounced the charges as false.
Russia has for years expressed interest in the release of Bout, a Russian arms dealer once dubbed the “dealer of death”. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2012 for conspiring to illegally sell millions of dollars worth of weapons.
Matthew Lee and Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to this report.
Follow AP’s coverage of Griner’s case at https://apnews.com/hub/brittney-griner
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