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Report: Russia may release WNBA star in exchange for ‘Merchant of Death’ arms dealer

The United States' Brittney Griner (15) shoots over Japan's Maki Takada (8) during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics Women's Basketball Final at Saitama Super Arena on Aug. 8, 2021, in Saitama, Japan. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
May 16, 2022

The Russian government reportedly wants to swap Brittney Griner, the American women’s basketball player they’ve detained since February, in exchange for a convicted Russian arms dealer known as the “Merchant of Death” who has been imprisoned in the U.S. since 2012.

Over the weekend, a source for Russia’s Public Monitoring Commission — which provides oversight for prisoners’ rights — told Russia’s state-run TASS news agency that efforts are in the works to release Griner in exchange for Russian national Viktor Bout.

Bout served in the Soviet Armed forces and, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, had worked as an international weapons trafficker throughout the 1990s and 2000s. According to the DOJ, between November 2007 and March 2008, Bout agreed to sell weapons to the Columbian militant group Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) with the knowledge they would be used to target Americans in Columbia. According to the DOJ, the weapons Bout helped sell included 800 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), 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.

Western media nicknamed Bout the “Merchant of Death.”

Bout was convicted in 2011 of conspiring to kill U.S. nationals, conspiring to kill U.S. officers and employees, conspiring to acquire and export anti-aircraft missiles and conspiring to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization. The U.S. had designated FARC a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) until November of last year, when President Joe Biden’s administration removed the designation.

Bout is currently serving a 25-year federal prison sentence.

Russian authorities arrested Griner in February at a Moscow airport. Russian authorities said a scan of Griner’s luggage revealed she had vape cartridges containing hash oil. She is being held in Russia on suspicions of drug smuggling.

The Biden administration has made no mention of exchanging Griner for Bout. On Friday, after the Russian side extended Griner’s detention, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the administration had assigned Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens to her case.

If the exchange were to go through, it would be the second time in recent months that Russia and the U.S. have agreed to swap detainees.

Last month, Russia released U.S. Marine veteran Trevor Reed in exchange for the U.S. release of Konstantin Yaroshenko, a former Russian pilot who had been convicted in a U.S. federal court on charges of attempting to smuggle drugs into the U.S. Yaroshenko had been sentenced in 2011 and was serving out a 20-year prison term at the time of his release.