Russia said on Friday that it was willing to have secret talks with the United States on a prisoner exchange, a day after a Russian court sentenced US basketball star Brittney Griner to nine years in prison for a narcotics offense.

After Russia pushed soldiers into Ukraine on Feb. 24, the case against Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) star, threw her into a geopolitical whirlwind.

According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, President Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden already agreed on a diplomatic route to negotiate future prisoner swaps.

“We are ready to discuss this topic, but within the framework of the channel that was agreed upon by presidents Putin and Biden,” Lavrov said during a visit to Cambodia.

“If the Americans decide to once again resort to public diplomacy … that is their business and I would even say that it is their problem.”

According to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Washington is willing to engage with Moscow via existing diplomatic channels. Griner’s conviction, he argued, emphasized Russia’s unlawful imprisonment and exacerbated the injustice done to her.

The Kremlin has been tight-lipped about the possibility of a swap, claiming that if prisoner swaps were publicised in the media, they would never take place.

“The Americans have already made that mistake, suddenly deciding to use megaphone diplomacy to resolve these issues,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said.

“This is not how they are resolved.”

Peskov refused to comment on the court’s decision in Griner’s case. When questioned whether she might be pardoned, he said that the process was codified in Russian legislation.

Griner’s sentence, which Biden described as “unacceptable” might pave the way for a prisoner exchange between the 31-year-old athlete and a serial Russian weapons dealer serving a 25-year sentence in the US.

The US has already offered a “substantial offer” to gain the release of Americans arrested in Russia, including Griner and former Marine Paul Whelan, according to Blinken.

‘A SERIOUS OFFER’

Following Griner’s imprisonment, White House national security secretary John Kirby said that the US had made a serious proposition to Russia.

“We urge them to accept it,” he said. “They should have accepted it weeks ago when we first made it.” 

Kirby did not go into additional detail about the US approach.

Some people familiar with the matter said that, Washington has offered to swap Russian weapons trafficker Viktor Bout for Griner and Whelan. 

According to Reuters, Russia attempted to include convicted killer Vadim Krasikov, who is now imprisoned in Germany, in the planned trade.

In April, Russia and the United States exchanged former Marine Trevor Reed for Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was serving a 20-year term in the United States. 

Griner was caught on February 17 at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport with hashish oil-laced vape cartridges in her baggage.

The US said she was wrongfully arrested and was being exploited as a political bargaining tool by Moscow. Russian authorities denied the US claim, claiming that Griner had infringed Russian law and should be punished appropriately.

Griner, who was given medicinal cannabis in the United States to ease pain from chronic ailments, said she made an honest error by carrying her vape cartridges accidently as she raced to catch her trip.

She admitted to the charges against her but argued that she had no intention of breaking Russian law.

In Russia, cannabis is outlawed for both medical and recreational uses.

Source: Reuters

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