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Former US official visits Russia to push for release of Americans

The Biden administration distances itself from Bill Richardson’s efforts, but Brittney Griner’s family welcomes the visit.

Former US diplomat Bill Richardson visited Russia this week, multiple media outlets reported, amid efforts to secure the release of US basketball player Brittney Griner and US military veteran Paul Whelan.

But the US State Department on Wednesday distanced itself from the trip, stressing that Washington is committed to Moscow through established channels to secure the release of the two Americans.

State Department spokesman Ned Price said the visit by Richardson, who has worked to free detained US citizens around the world, to Russia was not coordinated with the US government.

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“Our concern is that private citizens trying to broker a deal do not and cannot speak for the US government, and we have urged private citizens not to travel to Russia, due to the dangers they would face,” Price said. to journalists during a press conference. conference.

He added that holding talks with Russia outside of designated diplomatic channels may “hamper” the push to free Griner and Whelan.

The Associated Press reported that the Richardson Center for Global Engagement declined to comment on the visit.

The center founded by Richardson, a former United Nations envoy and governor of New Mexico, says it negotiates “for the release of prisoners and hostages held by hostile regimes or criminal organizations.”

Griner’s wife, Cherelle, told CNN the family turned to the Richardson Center for help. “We are encouraged to hear that they are having meetings in Moscow,” said Cherelle Griner.

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Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and WNBA star, was sentenced to nine years in prison last month on drug charges.

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She was arrested in February, days before Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and her case has made its way through the Russian judicial system amid tensions between Moscow and Washington over the war.

Griner was accused of bringing vaporizer canisters containing cannabis oil into Russia, where she was to play for a basketball team in Yekaterinburg.

Since Griner’s arrest, family members, teammates and supporters have been calling on the US government to throw its full weight behind the case to push for his release.

The US government said in May that Griner was “wrongfully detained” and has been calling for her release.

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After she was sentenced in August, President Joe Biden called her detention “unacceptable” and vowed to “relentlessly pursue every avenue possible” to bring her and Whelan back to the United States.

Whelan was sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2020 on espionage charges.

On Wednesday, Price said Washington had made a “significant offer” to Russia to secure the release of the two US citizens, adding that discussions on the matter are “ongoing.”

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