The Biden administration has reportedly offered to release an infamous Russian arms dealer in a trade to free two Americans—one of them being WNBA superstar Brittney Griner.
Viktor Bout, known as the “Merchant of Death,” was found guilty of conspiring to sell weapons to a terrorist organization in 2011. He’s currently serving a 25-year federal prison sentence in an Illinois prison.
What do we know so far?
The offer, first reported by CNN, might secure the release of the basketball player who has been been detained since February, after customs officials at Moscow airport allegedly found traces of cannabis oil on vape cartridges in her suitcase. Griner was traveling to the country to play for a Russian team, UMMC Ekaterinburg.
Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine who was sentenced in Russia to 16 years in prison on espionage charges, may also be part of the deal.
Read More: Brittney Griner’s Fight for Freedom
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday in a press conference that the U.S. had made a “substantial proposal” to secure the release of the two Americans, though he didn’t specifically mention Bout.
Who is Bout?
Bout, 55, is a former Soviet military translator who speaks six languages, according to the BBC in 2012. He began trafficking weapons in the 1990’s. He was arrested in Thailand in 2008, during an undercover investigation in which U.S. informants pretended to be Colombian rebels.
According to prosecutors, Bout had agreed to sell millions of dollars’ worth of weapons, including 800 surface-to-air missiles, 30,000 AK-47 firearms, 10 million rounds of ammunition, five tons of C-4 plastic explosives, ultralight airplanes outfitted with grenade launchers, and unmanned aerial vehicles to the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), a Colombian group that was designated a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. at the time.
U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, said that Bout planned to sell the weapons to people who would kill Americans. The Russian was later extradited to the U.S., where he was found guilty.
“Today, one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers is being held accountable for his sordid past,” Attorney General Eric Holder said at the time of Bout’s conviction.
His story inspired the 2005 Nicolas Cage movie Lord of War.
What happens next?
Moscow, which has called Bout’s conviction “unlawful,” has been trying to secure his release for years, while Griner’s family has urged the White House to secure the athlete’s release.
Blinken said on Wednesday that the offer was made “weeks ago,” and added that he would discuss it with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov this week. It will be his first call with Lavrov since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“My hope would be that in speaking to Foreign Minister Lavrov, I can advance the efforts to bring [Griner and Whelan] home,” Blinken said.
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