Russia is “ready” to discuss a prisoner swap with Washington at the presidential level, its foreign minister said yesterday, a day after the drug conviction of US basketball star Brittney Griner.
“We are ready to discuss this subject, but only within the framework of the [communication] channel established by” Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov told a news conference on a visit to Cambodia.
“There is a special channel established by the presidents and despite certain public declarations, it is still functional,” he said.
“If the Americans again decide to engage in public diplomacy and make thundering declarations ... that’s their business and their problem,” he said, adding that Washington is not able work “in a professional and calm manner.”
However, the discussions would not be held publicly, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
“If we discuss prisoner exchanges via the press then they will never take place,” he said.
The statements came a day after a Russian court sentenced Griner to nine years in a penal colony on a drug smuggling charge.
The 31-year-old Griner, a two-time US Olympic champion, listened with a blank expression as an interpreter translated the verdict by Judge Anna Sotnikova, but her lawyers said later she was “very upset.”
US President Joe Biden denounced the verdict and sentence as “unacceptable.”
“I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends and teammates,” Biden said, adding that he would continue to work to bring home Griner and Paul Whelan, an American imprisoned in Russia on an espionage conviction.
Griner, recognized as one of the greatest female players in basketball history, has been detained since Feb. 17 after police said they found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage upon arrival in Moscow.
The nine-year sentence was close to the maximum of 10 years that Griner had faced under the charges.
Most Russians possessing small quantities of drugs get at most five years in prison, lawyers said.
Defense attorney Maria Blagovolina told reporters Griner was “very upset, very stressed. She can hardly talk. It’s a difficult time for her.”
On Wednesday last week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington had offered a deal to Russia aimed at bringing home Griner and Whelan in a sharp reversal of previous policy.
Details of the proposal were not announced, although a person familiar with the matter said the US has offered to trade convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for Whelan and Griner.
Russian media have also speculated that Griner could be swapped for Bout, nicknamed “the Merchant of Death,” who is serving a 25-year sentence for conspiracy to kill Americans and providing aid to a terrorist organization.
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