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Who Is Viktor Bout, the Russian Arms Dealer Swapped for Brittney Griner’s Release?

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Updated: | Originally published:

WNBA superstar Brittney Griner has been freed from a Russian penal colony in a prisoner swap.

The basketball player had been detained since February, after customs officials at Moscow airport found traces of cannabis oil on vape cartridges in her suitcase when she was traveling to the country to play for a Russian team. In November, Griner was moved to a penal colony in Russia’s Mordovia region to serve a nine-year prison sentence for drug possession.

“She’s safe, she’s on a plane, she’s on her way home,” President Joe Biden said from the White House on Thursday.

Griner’s release came in exchange for the U.S. release of a Russian arms dealer. Viktor Bout, known as the “Merchant of Death,” was found guilty of conspiring to sell weapons to a terrorist organization in 2011. He was serving a 25-year federal prison sentence in an Illinois prison.

What do we know so far?

The offer by the Biden Administration to release Bout in return for Griner’s release was first reported by CNN in July.

Read More: A Long Line of Cold War Trades Set the Stage for Brittney Griner’s Release

The exchange took place on Thursday at an airfield in Abu Dhabi, where Russian media showed U.S. officials greeting Griner as she got off a plane, according to the Associated Press. Biden said that he’d spoken with her, and that she was expected to return to U.S. soil within 24 hours. Russian television later showed Bout arriving in Moscow, where he was greeted by his wife and mother. Bout’s mother thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin for his return to Russia, according to state-owned media.

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - JULY 27: Brittney Griner in Russian court in M
Brittney Griner in a Russian court in Moscow, Russia on July 27, 2022.The Washington Post via Getty Images

Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine who was sentenced in 2020 in Russia to 16 years in prison on espionage charges, was not part of the deal.

Read More: Prisoner Swap for Griner Was Biden’s Second, But White House Says They Must Remain Rare

“Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s,” Biden said on Thursday. “While we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We will never give up.”

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 1990s and became one of the most notorious arms dealers in the world, allegedly supplying artillery to regimes and militias across several continents. His story inspired the 2005 Nicolas Cage movie Lord of War.

Bout was arrested in Thailand in 2008, during an undercover investigation in which U.S. informants pretended to be Colombian rebels.

Alleged Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout
Alleged Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout looks on as he stands behind bars ahead of a court hearing at the Criminal Court in Bangkok, on March 6, 2009.Christophe Archambault—AFP/Getty Images

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.

Read More: Where Brittney Griner’s Case Goes From Here, and What It Will Take to Bring Her Home

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 in 2011.

“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.

Why did Russia want Bout released?

Bout has maintained his innocence, and Moscow has described his case as a glaring injustice. According to the Guardian, Russia’s human rights commissioner, Tatiana Moskalkova, praised Bout’s release, calling him a “wonderful man who has become a victim of American insinuations.”

“The Russian Federation continued to actively work towards the release of our fellow countryman,” Russia’s foreign ministry said, according to state-media. “The Russian citizen has been returned to his homeland.”

But Bout’s fabled past remains murky, with speculation about potential links to military intelligence and political elites, which he denies. Bout is also reportedly an avid Putin supporter and opponent of Ukraine’s independence, according to journalist Christopher Miller who says he corresponded with people who knew Bout in prison and said the arms dealer kept a photo of the Russian President in his cell.

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Write to Amy Gunia at amy.gunia@time.com