Lavrov says Russia ready to discuss prisoner swap with US after Griner conviction

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RUSSIA. (CW44 News At 10 | TAUT) – The US and Russia have expressed willingness to enter into talks over a prisoner swap, a day after basketball star Brittney Griner was convicted of drug smuggling and sentenced to nine years in prison for carrying less than a gram of cannabis oil through an airport in Moscow.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters in Cambodia that the Kremlin is “ready to discuss this issue, but within the channel agreed upon by the presidents,” state news agency RIA Novosti reported.

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“There is a certain channel that has been agreed by [Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden]and no matter what anyone says in public, this channel will remain in effect,” Lavrov reportedly said Friday at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit.

Shortly later, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at the same summit that the US will continue talks with Russia.

“We have, as you know, submitted a substantial proposal on which Russia should cooperate with us. And what Foreign Minister Lavrov said this morning and said publicly is that they are willing to go through channels we have set up to do just that. And we will pursue that,” Blinken told reporters at a news conference.

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President Joe Biden said later on Friday that he is hopeful about efforts to secure Griner.

“I’m hopeful. We’re working hard,” Biden told reporters outside the White House after signing a bill.

The comments from both sides suggest that a negotiation process, which has already proved complex, could accelerate in the coming days.

Russian government officials last month asked for a former colonel of the country’s domestic espionage service, who was convicted of murder in Germany last year, to be included in the US-proposed swap of notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout for Griner and Paul Whelan , multiple well-known sources with the discussions told TAUT.

Whelan, a US citizen, has been detained by Russia since 2018 and was convicted in 2020 by a Russian court on charges of espionage which he has vehemently denied. Griner’s conviction has raised similar concerns that she is being used as a political pawn in Russia’s war against Ukraine. The United States Department of State classifies the couple as wrongly detained.

Griner, a star of the Women’s National Basketball Association, pleaded guilty to carrying cannabis oil in her luggage as she passed through an airport in Moscow on Feb. 17. the country, saying she was in a hurry and “packing stress.”

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Ahead of Thursday’s ruling, Griner apologized to the court and asked for clemency in an emotional speech. “It was never my intention to hurt anyone, it was never my intention to endanger the Russian people, it was never my intention to break any laws here,” she said.

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“I made an honest mistake and I hope in your statement that my life does not end here. I know everyone keeps talking about political pawn and politics, but I hope that’s far from this courtroom,” she continued.

Griner’s lawyers had hoped that her admission of guilt and declarations of remorse would lead to a more lenient sentence.

Her conviction, Blinken told reporters, “puts on a spotlight” [Washington’s] deeply concerned about the Russian justice system and the Russian government’s use of unlawful detentions to further its own agenda by using individuals as political pawns.”

“The same goes for Paul Whelan,” Blinken added.

Earlier Friday, a US State Department official told reporters there was no “serious response” from Russia to a proposed exchange. The same official said that Blinken and Lavrov had not met during the Cambodia summit, and that Blinken had no intention of doing so.

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Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Russia would not publicly discuss the prospect of a handover. “If we discuss some of the nuances related to exchanges through the press, then those exchanges will never happen. The Americans have already made this mistake,” he said Friday.

Peskov, who asked if Putin could pardon Griner, said that “there is a certain… [legal] procedure to which the convicted person may invoke, in accordance with the law.” Under Russian law, in order to start the leniency procedure, a convicted person must write a petition to the Russian president.

Before the start of Thursday’s WNBA game between Griner’s Phoenix Mercury and the Connecticut Sun, members of both teams wrapped their arms around center court and a 42-second silence was observed for Brittney Griner.

Towards the end of those 42 seconds, members of the crowd began chanting, “Take her home! Take her home!”

This story has been updated with additional developments.

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