President Biden spoke this morning on a prisoner swap to free WNBA player Britney Griner from Russia.
Brittney Griner’s freedom ultimately hinged on the release of a convicted Russian arms dealer whose life story inspired a Hollywood film.
On Thursday, a source told CNN that the US basketball star had been released from Russian detention in a prisoner swap for Viktor Bout, nicknamed the “Merchant of Death” by his accuser.
Bout, a former Soviet military officer, was serving a 25-year prison sentence in the United States on charges of conspiring to kill Americans, acquire and export anti-aircraft missiles, and provide material support to a terrorist organization. Bout has maintained he is innocent.
The Kremlin has long called for his release, slamming his sentencing in 2012 as “baseless and biased.”
Griner – who had for years played in the off-season for a Russian women’s basketball team – was arrested on drug smuggling charges at an airport in the Moscow region in February. Despite her testimony that she had inadvertently packed the cannabis oil found in her luggage, she was sentenced to nine years in prison in early August and was moved to a penal colony in Mordovia in mid-November after losing her appeal.
Griner’s family had urged the White House to secure her release, including via prisoner exchange if necessary. At the center of their bid was Bout, a man who eluded international arrest warrants and asset freezes for years.
The Russian businessman, who speaks six languages, was arrested in a sting operation in 2008 led by US drug enforcement agents in Thailand posing as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by the acronym FARC. He was eventually extradited to the US in 2010 after a protracted court proceeding.
“Viktor Bout has been international arms trafficking enemy number one for many years, arming some of the most violent conflicts around the globe,” said Preet Bharara, the US attorney in Manhattan when Bout was sentenced in New York in 2012.
“He was finally brought to justice in an American court for agreeing to provide a staggering number of military-grade weapons to an avowed terrorist organization committed to killing Americans.”
The trial honed in on Bout’s role in supplying weapons to FARC, a guerrilla group that waged an insurgency in Colombia until 2016. The US said the weapons were intended to kill US citizens.
A source familiar with the matter tells CNN that the swap involves convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. The swap did not include another American that the State Department has declared wrongfully detained, Paul Whelan.
“She’s safe, she’s on a plane, she’s on her way home,” Biden said at the White House Thursday morning alongside Griner’s wife, Cherelle. “After months of being unjustly detained in Russia, held under untolerable circumstances, Brittney will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones, and she should have been there all along.”
Biden acknowledged that Griner’s release was occurring while Whelan remained imprisoned, saying that Whelan’s family “have to have such mixed emotions today.”
“This was not a choice of which American to bring home,” Biden said. “Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s. And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We will never give up.”