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Blinken reiterates Griner and Whelan have been wrongfully detained in Russia

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Secretary of State Antony Blinken hasn't spoken with his Russian counterpart since the war began in Ukraine, but that's about to change.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CONFERENCE)

ANTONY BLINKEN: I plan to raise an issue that's a top priority for us - the release of Americans Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner, who've been wrongfully detained and must be allowed to come home.

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Griner is a U.S. Olympian and WNBA star on trial on drug charges in Russia. Whelan is a former Marine convicted in a secret trial on espionage charges.

FADEL: NPR's Michele Kelemen joins us now to talk about Blinken's efforts to get them home.

Good morning, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So, Michele, what did Blinken say about this yesterday?

KELEMEN: Well, he said that he put what he called a substantial deal on the table weeks ago and that he plans to raise this directly with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, but he wouldn't really go beyond that. You know, for instance, he would not confirm nor did he deny reports that the U.S. is ready to do a prisoner swap and release Viktor Bout. He's this arms dealer dubbed the Merchant of Death who was caught in a sting operation in 2008 in Thailand. And he's currently serving a 25-year prison sentence in the U.S. The Russians have long sought his release. The Biden administration did do a prisoner swap earlier this year. So this wouldn't be the first, but it would be a fairly dramatic one.

FADEL: So they're not confirming that there. Now, Griner was in court yesterday in Russia. She testified. What did she say?

KELEMEN: Yeah. You know, she's pleaded guilty. She was caught at the airport in February with vape cartridges containing hashish oil. Griner explained to the court that this was medically prescribed marijuana for pain relief, that she did not mean to bring it to Russia, where it's illegal. She packed in a hurry on her way to Yekaterinburg, where she plays for a Russian team during the WNBA's off season. Her lawyers say they're not taking part in discussions about any prisoner swap and that such a deal would only be possible after the court reaches a verdict. Blinken is clearly hoping to move this process along by talking to Lavrov in the coming days. The Biden administration is facing a lot of public pressure to get Brittney Griner home. Biden's spoken to Griner's wife about the case. And Paul Whelan's family has also been pushing hard for his release since he's been held longer for several years now and was left behind in a recent prisoner swap that freed another former U.S. Marine, Trevor Reed.

FADEL: Now, if there is a prisoner swap, what precedent does it set for Americans in Russia?

KELEMEN: Well, it is a dangerous precedent there and everywhere, by the way. Secretary Blinken was clearly sounding worried about that. Take a listen to what he had to say at his news conference yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CONFERENCE)

BLINKEN: We, of course, want to see those who are wrongfully detained be released and be able to return home. At the same time, it's important that we work to reinforce the global norm against these arbitrary detentions, against what is truly a horrific practice.

KELEMEN: You know, the U.S. has been trying to get prisoners out of Iran, Venezuela and many other places, and the secretary says he wants to make sure that countries don't have an incentive to arrest Americans and hold them as hostages. But the U.S. has done prisoner swaps. The Obama and Trump administrations did them with Iran. Iran continues to hold Americans. So the question for the Biden administration is whether they can find a way to impose costs on countries that do this habitually rather than just continue to negotiate prisoner swap deals.

FADEL: NPR's Michele Kelemen, thank you so much.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.