Russia said Friday it was pursuing a prisoner swap with the US to return imprisoned arms dealer Viktor Bout, dubbed the “Merchant of Death,” in an exchange that would likely include Brittney Griner.
“I would like to hope that the prospect (of swapping Bout) not only remains, but is being strengthened, and that the moment will come when the prospect will turn into a concrete agreement,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Russian state news agency Interfax.
“The Americans are showing some external activity, we are working professionally through a special channel designed for this,” Ryabkov added. “So far, we have not reached a common denominator, but it’s undisputed that Viktor Bout is among those who are being discussed, and we certainly count on a positive result.”
The distinctly upbeat remarks from Ryabkov contrast with previous statements from Moscow, which hit out at Washington for trying to engage in “megaphone diplomacy” after Secretary of State Antony Blinken publicly discussed the proposed prisoner swap.
The possible exchange includes Griner, who has been sentenced to nine years in prison for bringing cannabis vape cartridges into Russia, and retired US Marine Paul Whelan who is serving a 16-year sentence in a penal colony after being convicted of espionage charges that he denies.
Variously dubbed the “Merchant of Death” and the “sanctions buster” for his ability to get around arms embargoes, Bout was one of the world’s most wanted men prior to his 2008 arrest on multiple charges related to arms trafficking.
For almost two decades, Bout was one of the world’s most notorious arms dealers, selling weaponry to rogue states, rebel groups and murderous warlords in Africa, Asia and South America.
But in 2008, Bout was snared in an elaborate US sting in Thailand.
Bout was caught on camera agreeing to sell undercover US agents posing as representatives of Colombia’s leftist FARC guerrillas up to $20 million worth of weapons, including 100 surface-to-air missiles, which they would use to shoot down US military helicopters. Shortly afterwards, he was arrested by Thai police.
Bout was tried on the charges related to FARC, which he denied, and in 2012 was convicted and sentenced by a court in Manhattan to 25 years in prison, the minimum sentence possible.
Ever since, Russia has been eager to get him back, claiming that he is an “entrepreneur” who was unjustly incarcerated.
To show the state’s support for his plight, the upper chamber of the Russian parliament on Tuesday opened an exhibition of Bout’s prison artwork featuring a portrait of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and a painting of a kitten.
Grigory Karasin, head of the upper chamber’s international relations committee, vowed that “Russian diplomats will do everything so that he returns to his homeland as soon as possible. This is not an easy task, but we will continue our efforts.”
President Biden said last week that he hopes Russian President Vladimir Putin will be more willing to negotiate the release of Griner now that the midterm elections were over.
He spoke hours after Griner’s lawyers revealed that the 32-year-old WNBA star had been transferred to one of Russia’s notoriously harsh penal colonies in the Mordovia region to serve her sentence following a court’s rejection of her appeal.
With Post wires
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