President Biden on Friday reassured the sister of Paul Whelan that he is committed to bringing him home the former Marine who has been detained in Russia on spy charges since 2018.
The meeting followed stinging criticism from Mr. Whelan’s family that Mr. Biden was ignoring their plight.
In his conversation with Mr. Whelan’s sister, Elizabeth Whelan, Mr. Biden said the U.S. “will continue its efforts to secure the release of Paul as well as Brittney Griner and all other Americans who are held hostage or wrongfully detained around the world,” according to a statement from a White House official.
“The U.S. government will continue to be in regular contact with Paul’s family, and with the families of other Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad, to provide support and assistance and keep them updated on efforts to secure the release of their loved ones,” the official said.
Ms. Whelan earlier this week raised pressure on the White House to work to free her brother after the President offered that his administration was working to free Britney Griner, the WNBA star who was arrested at Moscow’s airport in mid-February for allegedly carrying vaporizer cartridges containing cannabis oil.
“Still looking for that press release saying @POTUS has spoken to anyone in OUR family about #PaulWhelan, wrongfully detained in #Russia for 3.5 years,” Ms. Whelan wrote on Twitter.
“I am crushed. If he wants to talk about securing Paul’s release, he needs to be talking to the Whelans! What are we to think?!” she said.
Mr. Biden spoke with Ms. Griner’s wife Cherrelle Griner by phone on Wednesday after the White House received a hand-written plea for help earlier this week from Britney Griner.
Cherelle Griner has become increasingly critical of Nr. Biden for the administration’s response to Britney Griner’s detention in Russia. She said she was grateful for the president’s call, but would keep up the pressure.
“I am grateful to both of them for the time they spent with me and for the commitment they expressed to getting BG home,” Cherelle Griner said.
Last month, the State Department botched a call that had been scheduled for the Griners’ fourth anniversary, which was to be the first time the two had spoken in months.
Brittney Griner attempted to call a number that had been provided to her for the Saturday call 11 times but the U.S. embassy in Moscow failed to patch the call through due to a weekend staffing shortfall.
The State Department apologized for what it said was a “logistical error.”
Cherelle Griner said she had lost all trust in the U.S. government because of the mix-up.
In her letter to Biden earlier this week, Brittney Griner wrote that she was “terrified I might be here forever.”
Ms. Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges in a Moscow court on Thursday and faces up to 10 years in a Russian prison.
The State Department says Ms. Griner and Mr. Whelan are both being wrongfully detained by Russia.
Mr. Biden is said to have received regular updates on the Whelan case, and staff from the special envoy for hostage affairs held a call with Ms. Whelan earlier this week.
National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken also have reached out to Ms. Whelan, although Mr. Biden has not.