Russia said on Thursday that it had not yet reached a deal with the United States on a prisoner exchange involving two Americans.
Russian officials warned that any exchange needs to be negotiated quietly.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday that U.S. officials had offered Russia a deal. The aim is to gain the release of basketball player Brittney Griner and former soldier Paul Whelan. A person with knowledge of the matter said the U.S. government proposed trading convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for the two Americans.
Russian government spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that prisoner exchanges were usually negotiated quietly.
“Normally, the public learns about it when the agreements are already implemented,” Peskov said.
He said that “no agreements have been finalized” and did not provide more details.
Blinken’s comments were the first from a U.S. government official about any action taken to secure Griner's release.
Griner is a two-time Olympic gold medalist and player for the Women’s National Basketball Association’s (WNBA) Phoenix Mercury. She was arrested in February at an airport in Moscow. Inspectors found a container of cannabis oil with her possessions.
Blinken said he expects to speak with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to discuss the proposed prisoner deal and other matters. It reportedly would be their first phone call since before Russia sent its troops into Ukraine.
Russia has expressed interest in the release of Bout for years. He was an arms dealer once called the “Merchant of Death.” He was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2012 on charges that he illegally sold millions of dollars in weapons.
Griner’s trial on drug charges started in a court outside Moscow this month. She said Wednesday that she did not know how the containers, or cartridges, ended up in her bag. But she said a doctor recommended she use cannabis to treat her basketball-related pain.
The 31-year-old has admitted guilt but she said she did not mean to break the law. She said she quickly prepared her things for her return to play in a Russian basketball league when the WNBA was not playing. She faces up to 10 years in prison if found guilty of transporting drugs.
On Wednesday, Griner said that a Russian language expert only told her a small amount of what was being said while she was held at the Moscow airport. Officials told her to sign documents, but “no one explained any of it to me,” she said.
Griner also said she received no explanation of her rights and could not talk to a lawyer during the first hours of her detention. She said she used a computer program, or app, on her phone to communicate with a customs officer.
Her arrest came at a time of increasing tension between Russia and the United States before Russia sent troops into Ukraine on February 24. Griner’s five months of detention have raised strong criticism among her supporters in the United States.
The administration of President Joe Biden has faced political pressure to free Griner and other Americans whom the U.S. has declared to be “wrongfully detained.”
Whelan is a business security executive from Michigan. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison on spying charges in 2020. The U.S. government has denounced the charges as false.
The U.S. has long resisted prisoner exchanges. There is concern that the deals could lead to more hostage-taking. Officials also fear exchanges could create a false equivalency between a wrongfully detained American and a foreigner considered justly convicted.
In April, however, the government made a deal to trade U.S. Marine veteran Trevor Reed for jailed Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko.
I’m Dan Novak.
Dan Novak adapted this story for VOA Learning English based on reporting by The Associated Press and Reuters.
Words in This Story
implement — v. to put into use or to make something active or effective
cannabis — n. a drug (such as marijuana or hashish) that comes from the hemp plant and is smoked illegally
merchant — n. a person who buys and sells goods especially in large amounts
equivalency — n. a quality or state of one thing having the same value as another thing
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