Dec 8, 2022 - World

What to know about Viktor Bout, the Russian arms dealer swapped for Brittney Griner

Viktor Bout holds up a peace sign with his right hand as he exits a jail cell.

Russian alleged arms dealer Viktor Bout shows a victory sign after his verdict at the Criminal Court in Bangkok on August 11, 2009 (PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP via Getty Images)

WNBA star Brittney Griner is free — in exchange for convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout who has been known as the “Merchant of Death.”

Driving the news: The U.S. freed convicted Russian arms dealer Bout in an exchange for Griner that took place in the United Arab Emirates, according to a senior administration official.

  • Griner had been incarcerated for nearly 10 months. She was arrested in February after Russian authorities said they found a vape cartridge with hashish oil in her luggage, and later sentenced to nine years in prison and transferred to a penal colony.

Context: Bout was serving a 25-year prison sentence in the U.S. for charges that included conspiring to kill U.S. citizens and aiding a terrorist organization.

Flashback: The United Nations began investigating Bout, a former Soviet military officer, in the 1990s for trafficking military-grade weapons during conflicts in Africa and the Middle East.

  • Bout was arrested in Thailand in a 2008 sting operation and convicted in a U.S. court in 2012 for supplying weapons to a terrorist organization and conspiring to kill Americans.
  • Russia called the charges “baseless and biased” and accused the U.S. of targeting Bout for political reasons.

What they’re saying: Several Republican lawmakers criticized the prisoner exchange Thursday because it did not include former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who has been held in Russia since 2018.

  • White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at a news conference Thursday that "Russians were not willing to negotiate in good faith for the release of Paul Whelan at this time."

Background: Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in late July that the U.S. had made a "substantial proposal" to the Kremlin to secure the release of Griner and Whelan. Blinken said both had been "wrongfully detained."

  • However, Russia is treating Whelan’s case differently due to charges of espionage, the senior administration official said Thursday.
  • "While we have not yet succeeded in securing [Whelan's] release, we are not giving up," President Biden said in an address Thursday morning. "We remain in close touch with Paul's family."
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