Former US Ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson is reported to currently be at the center of back-channel US-Russia talks to free detained Americans Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan. Last week Griner was handed a stiff 9-year sentence after she pled guilty to violating Russian law by bringing cannabis vape cartridges into the country.
"I’m optimistic. I think she’s going to be free," Richardson told ABC’s This Week in a fresh interview. He revealed new information during the comments, saying that a "two-for-two" prisoner swap with Moscow is in the works.
"There’s gonna be a prisoner swap, though, and I think it’ll be two-for-two, involving Paul Whelan. We can’t forget him," Richardson, who through The Richardson Center has had past successes in freeing Americans detained abroad, added.
But as for Americans potentially 'forgotten about' by both the Biden administration and the media, there remains US citizen and teacher Marc Fogel, who last year was sentenced to 14 years in a Russian penal colony for possession of medical marijuana.
When asked about Fogel in the ABC interview, Richardson didn't address if there's a specific effort to free him, but simply said, "All of these that are wrongfully detained need to come home."
According to more via The Hill:
He added that his foundation, The Richardson Center, is involved in talks about the release of three other Americans held by Russia, but that he was a "catalyst" for what would ultimately be a government-to-government agreement.
None of this has been officially confirmed by the Biden administration, but Russian FM Lavrov and Secretary of State Blinken recently held their first phone call since the Ukraine war began. It was reportedly focused on moving prisoner swap negotiations along, but later senior admin officials accused the Kremlin of asking for too much.
Funny how Marc Fogel isn’t getting 24/7 media, celebrity and politicians coverage? I guess his white privilege card expired. pic.twitter.com/4JXFdWJdWV— Erich Hartmann 🇺🇸🏁 (@ErichHa69015939) August 7, 2022
Griner's case has been the one to receive a flood of international media coverage, which also brought Paul Whelan's plight into focus. But it seems much of the public still doesn't know about Fogel - whose case ironically enough is most similar to Griner's, given he was caught with a small amount of cannabis and was handed a lengthy sentence. Some US reports have stressed that the White House has "publicly omitted" Fogel from all of its statements.
Notorious Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout has been widely reported as potentially one of the prisoners in US custody to be swapped, but it's as yet unclear who the other might be - if the "two for two" pending deal is accurate.
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Rod Dreher at The American Conservative asks, Why is this even on the table? Peter Van Buren, a former US diplomat, questions whether Griner is getting special treatment from the Biden administration. He writes, in part:
The rule is simple: abroad, Americans are subject to the host country’s laws and legal system, whether that be Great Britain or Russia. The Bill of Rights does not follow Americans to foreign countries, nor will the US government intervene with the host country on their behalf. Try and bring some weed into Japan, and if you’re caught, you’re looking at years behind bars. No matter if it’s a small amount for personal use back home. In Japan, anything over about an ounce means you intended to sell it, and the punishment is accordingly lengthy.
I should know: I spent seven years in Japan visiting American prisoners as part of my State Department job. The top three reasons for their arrests were drugs, drugs, and drugs. Just like Brittney Griner. The difference between them and Griner was I was not allowed to help them get out, or advocate for a shorter sentence.
The only exception was if you were "wrongly detained," [sic] a special category that allows the US government to actively help free those designated. It is up to the secretary of state to make the call, as there are no set criteria. Even the total number of Americans so designated is murky.