Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan: Richardson suggests they could be released by the end of the year



CNN

Former Gov. Bill Richardson said Sunday he is “cautiously optimistic” that two Americans wrongfully detained by Russia will be released and suggested they could be freed before the end of the year.

Richardson, a former Democratic governor of New Mexico, and his namesake center work privately on behalf of hostage families and prisoners. He recently traveled to Russia to discuss with Kremlin officials the possible release of basketball star Brittney Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, and he said Sunday that he is working with both Americans’ families and coordinating with the White House for their release.

“I think so. Now, I hate to make predictions, but yeah,” Richardson told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union” when asked if he believed Griiner and Whelan could be released before the end of this year.

“I know (the families are) very emotional and it’s a very emotional time. All I can say is that the Biden administration is working hard on it,” added Richardson, who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the Clinton- the administration. “So am I. We coordinate but do not always agree on every tactical decision. But I will not interfere in their process. I’m just giving you my assessment after two visits to Russia on behalf of American hostages.”

In August, Griner was sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison after pleading guilty to drug trafficking. The two-time US Olympic basketball gold medalist had been arrested at a Moscow airport and accused by Russian prosecutors of trying to smuggle less than 1 gram of cannabis oil in her luggage – which she said she had accidentally packed while busy.

Whelan was detained at a Moscow hotel in December 2018 and arrested on espionage charges, which he has consistently and vehemently denied. He was convicted and sentenced in June 2020 to 16 years in prison in a trial that US officials denounced as unfair.

President Joe Biden met separately with the families of Griner and Whelan at the White House last month, marking his first in-person meeting with them since their loved ones were detained in Russia.

On Sunday, Richardson characterized his meetings in Russia as being with “right-wing Russian officials, people close to President (Vladimir) Putin.”

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Richardson said of Griner and Whelan’s release negotiations.

“I understood that the Russian officials that I met with, that I have known over the years, are ready to talk,” he said. “I got a good feeling about the Russians – the vibrations – but I’m not an official.”

The Biden administration had previously distanced itself from Richardson’s efforts. Last month, a senior administration official told CNN that anyone “going to Russia is going as a private citizen and they are not speaking on behalf of the US government.”

“I am not part of the government, the government channel. I have always made that clear. I respect that. I think that any decision, for example, a release, an exchange of prisoners, must be made by the president. And I think that the administration has done a good job with that, Richardson said Sunday.

Richardson on Sunday acknowledged the White House’s dismay that he was involved in prisoner release negotiations, but cited his experience in previous prisoner negotiations, including his role in the release of Trevor Reed from Russian custody earlier this year.

A source familiar with the situation previously told CNN that members of the Richardson Center traveled to Moscow in February, in the days immediately before the Russian war in Ukraine began, to meet with Russian leadership. After this visit, the Richardson Center came away with a clear sense of what the Russians were willing to do and how they were willing to do it, which was presented to the White House. Reed was released in a prisoner exchange in April.

“I’ve been coordinating with the White House. I’ve been coordinating as much as I can, but you know, sometimes they’re a little nervous that I’m doing this on my own,” he said.

“But at the same time, we’ve had success recently with Trevor Reed, the American hostage in Russia a few months ago. Danny Fenster, journalist in Myanmar at the end of last year,” Richardson added. “So I know what I’m doing. ”

Earlier this month, Biden announced the return of seven Americans who had been detained in Venezuela. The detainees were released in exchange for the release of two Venezuelans imprisoned in the United States for conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the country, both nephews of the Venezuelan first lady.

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