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Russia Hints At Linking Griner’s Case to the Fate of ‘Death Traders’

WASHINGTON – She is an American professional basketball star who allegedly carried hash oil in her luggage.

He is a notorious Russian arms dealer known as “The Trader of Death”, serving a 25-year federal prison sentence for conspiring to sell weapons to people who say they planned kill Americans.

And the Kremlin seems interested in linking their fates, in a potential deal with the Biden administration that would unleash both.

The large disparity between Brittney Griner and Viktor Bout’s cases highlights the extreme difficulty President Biden will face if he seeks a prisoner swap to free Griner, the incarcerated WNBA player. kept in Moscow. The Biden administration, reluctant to create an incentive for the arrest or abduction of Americans abroad, would find it difficult to justify the release of a villain like Mr. Bout.

At the same time, Mr. Biden was pressured to release Ms. Griner, who was arrested at a Moscow-area airport in February and whom the State Department classified in May is “wrongfully detained.” That reflects concerns that the Kremlin sees her as leverage in the tense standoff between the United States and Russia over Ukraine. Last week, dozens of groups representing people of color, women and LGBTQ Americans sent a letter urged Mr. Biden to “make a deal to bring Brittney back home to America immediately and safely.”

Griner’s trial begins on Friday.

Mr. Bout, 55, a former Soviet military officer who made a fortune from the global arms trade before his arrest in a federal operation, could be the price to pay for any any deal. Russian officials have been pressing Bout’s case for years, and in recent weeks Russian media outlets have linked his case directly to Griner’s. Some, including the state-owned Tass news service, even declared that talks with Washington for an exchange may be underway, which US officials would not confirm.

In an interview, Bout’s New York-based attorney Steve Zissou said that Russian officials were pressing for Bout’s release, who was convicted in 2011 offers to sell weapons, including anti-aircraft missiles, to federal agents posing as members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Mr. Zissou said he met Anatoly I. Antonov, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, in June in Washington and Mr. Antonov told him that the release of Mr. Bout was a very high priority for the Russian government.

“It was very clearly communicated to the US side that they would have to carry out an attack on Viktor Bout if they wanted any more prisoner exchanges,” Zissou said. “My feeling about this is that no Americans will come home unless Viktor Bout is sent home with them.”

US officials have declined to substantiate that position and will not discuss any potential deal to free Griner. As is customary, the State Department has dismissed questions about prisoner exchanges around the world, warning that it has set a dangerous precedent.

Department spokesman Ned Price said recently: “Using wrongful detention as a bargaining chip represents a threat to the safety of people traveling, working and living. overseas,” said department spokesman Ned Price recently.

Mr. Biden agreed with a prisoner exchange in April, under which Russia released Trevor Reed, a former US Marine from Texas, who has been detained since 2019 on charges of assaulting two police officers. In return, the United States freed Konstantin Yaroshenko, a pilot sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2011 for drug smuggling. But White House officials emphasized that Mr. Reed’s ill health made his case special.

Many people have expressed support for Ms. Griner, a star athlete and basketball icon. Less obvious is the Russian government’s involvement with an organized crime giant with ties to terrorists and war criminals. In December, a government building in Moscow exhibiting two dozen pencil sketches by Mr. Bout and other works of art created from his cell in a federal penitentiary building near Marion, Ill.

At the time of his arrest in 2008, Mr. Bout (pronounced “boot”) was known as an arms dealer character played by Nicolas Cage in the 2005 film “Lord of War” based on the life of Mr. he.

Born in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, he attended a Russian military college and served as an officer in the Soviet air force.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mr. Bout began making money transporting goods between continents. U.S. officials say he quickly became one of the world’s top arms dealers, transporting weapons from the former Soviet military on Ilyushin transport planes, with an exceptionally lucrative business. in war-torn African countries such as Liberia and Sierra Leone. Mr Bout denied he knowingly sold weapons.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the United States and European nations were sure that Mr. Bout’s arms shipments were not only the cause of death and misery, but also violated the arms embargo. of the United Nations. They were particularly worried when intelligence suggested he might have done business with the Afghan Taliban and even Al Qaeda, allegations he denies.

In the end, the United States lured Mr. Bout into a trap. In 2008, a pair of Drug Enforcement Administration agents posing as members of Colombia’s leftist rebel group FARC arranged a meeting in Bangkok with Mr. Bout to purchase weapons including 30,000 AK rifles. -47, plastic explosives and surface-to-air missiles for use against. The Colombian government and US military support the operation against FARC.

“Viktor Bout was ready to sell an arsenal of weapons that would make some small country jealous,” said Preet Bharara, then US attorney for the Southern District of New York, said after being convicted. “He aimed to sell those weapons to terrorists with the aim of killing Americans.”

FARC’s official status at the time as a foreign terrorist organization meant that Mr. Bout received a mandatory federal minimum sentence of 25 years.

A former U.S. official familiar with Bout’s plight said the Russian government’s concern for his freedom appeared to be personal and that he had ties to powerful people close to Bout. President Vladimir Putin.

Another former US official points to a somewhat more principled reason: Mr. Bout was arrested in Thailand and extradited from there to New York. Russian officials have complained about what they call “an operation increasingly used by the US to actually hunt down our citizens abroad and arrest them in other countries”, such as Grigory Lukyantsev, human rights commissioner of the Russian Foreign Ministry, said in August, according to Russian news agency RT.

The former US official said it was highly unlikely, given the gravity of his crimes, that Mr Bout would be freed under any deal for Ms Griner – even if, as some have argued, speculated, the transaction included Paul Whelan, a former US Marine who has been detained in Moscow since December 2018 on espionage charges. The former official said Russia had sought to free Mr Bout in higher-profile cases in the past and had been firmly refused.

Both former officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the Bout case publicly.

Danielle Gilbert, an assistant professor of military and strategic studies at the US Air Force Academy who specializes in hostage diplomacy, agreed that Bout’s release would be a difficult political proposition. But she doesn’t rule out the idea. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they were at least looking at the possibility,” she said, noting that she did not speak for the US government.

Mr. Bout has at least one advocate for his release in the United States: Shira A. Scheindlin, the judge presiding over his case. In an interview, Ms Scheindlin said it would be inappropriate to swap Mr Bout for Ms Griner given the scale of his offense in relation to her alleged offence.

But she says a deal that includes Mr Whelan might even weigh in. Mr Bout spent 11 years in prison, she noted, saying “he was not a terrorist, in my opinion. He is a businessman. Despite being asked to impose his mandatory 25-year sentence, she added: “I thought it was too high at the time.”

“So, having served him long, I think the US interest in punishing him has been satisfied,” she said, “and it wouldn’t be a bad equation to send him back. if we get back these people are important to us.”

Even if the United States were ready for such a deal, Mr. Zissou said it would not happen. He said he believed Russia – which insists Ms Griner faces legal charges and is not a political pawn – was determined to complete the trial before negotiating her release. . “And that could take months,” he said.

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