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Russia Hints at Linking Griner’s Case to Fate of ‘Merchant of Death’

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WASHINGTON — She is an American skilled basketball star, accused of carrying hashish oil in her luggage.

He’s a notorious Russian arms dealer generally known as the “Merchant of Death,” serving a 25-year federal prison sentence for conspiring to sell weapons to individuals who said they planned to kill Americans.

And the Kremlin appears desirous about linking their fates, in a possible take care of the Biden administration that will free each.

The vast disparity between the cases of Brittney Griner and Viktor Bout highlights the acute difficulty President Biden would face if he sought a prisoner exchange to free Ms. Griner, the detained W.N.B.A. player, from detention in Moscow. The Biden administration, reluctant to create an incentive for the arrest or abduction of Americans abroad, could be hard-pressed to justify the discharge of a villainous figure like Mr. Bout.

At the identical time, Mr. Biden is under pressure to free Ms. Griner, who was arrested at a Moscow-area airport in February and whom the State Department classified in May as “wrongfully detained.” That reflects concern that the Kremlin considers her leverage within the tense confrontation between america and Russia over Ukraine. Last week, dozens of groups representing people of color, women and L.G.B.T.Q. Americans sent a letter urging Mr. Biden to “make a deal to get Brittney back home to America immediately and safely.”

Ms. Griner’s trial began on Friday and was adjourned until next Thursday.

Mr. Bout, 55, a former Soviet military officer who made a fortune in global arms trafficking before he was caught in a federal sting operation, may very well be the value for any deal. Russian officials have pressed Mr. Bout’s case for years, and in recent weeks Russian media outlets have directly linked his case to Ms. Griner’s. Some, including the state-owned Tass news service, have even claimed that talks with Washington for a possible exchange are already underway, something that U.S. officials won’t confirm.

Mr. Bout’s Recent York-based lawyer, Steve Zissou, said in an interview that Russian officials are pressing to free Mr. Bout, who was convicted in 2011 of offering to sell weapons, including antiaircraft missiles, to federal agents posing as members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Mr. Zissou said that he met with Anatoly I. Antonov, Russia’s ambassador to america, in June in Washington and that Mr. Antonov told him the discharge of Mr. Bout was a really high priority for the Russian government.

“It has been communicated to the American side very clearly that they’re going to must get real on Viktor Bout in the event that they expect any further prisoner exchanges,” Mr. Zissou said. “My sense of that is that no American goes home unless Viktor Bout is shipped home with them.”

U.S. officials have declined to substantiate that notion and won’t discuss any potential deal to free Ms. Griner. The State Department as a matter of practice dismisses questions on prisoner exchanges all over the world, warning that they set a dangerous precedent.

“Using wrongful detention as a bargaining chip represents a threat to the protection of everyone traveling, working and living abroad,” the department’s spokesman, Ned Price, recently said.

Mr. Biden did comply with a prisoner exchange in April, during which Russia released Trevor Reed, a former U.S. Marine from Texas who had been held since 2019 on charges of assaulting two cops. The USA in return freed Konstantin Yaroshenko, a pilot sentenced in 2011 to twenty years in prison for drug smuggling. But White House officials stressed that Mr. Reed’s failing health made his case exceptional.

Many individuals have expressed support for Ms. Griner, a star athlete and basketball icon. Less obvious is the Russian government’s solidarity with an organized crime titan linked to terrorists and war criminals. In December, a government constructing in Moscow exhibited two dozen of Mr. Bout’s pencil sketches and other artwork produced from his cell in a federal penitentiary constructing near Marion, Ailing.

By the point of his arrest in 2008, Mr. Bout (pronounced “boot”) was so known that an arms-trafficking character played by Nicolas Cage within the 2005 film “Lord of War” was based on his life.

Updated 

July 2, 2022, 5:03 a.m. ET

Born in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, he attended a Russian military college and served as a Soviet air force officer.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mr. Bout began creating wealth ferrying cargo between continents. U.S. officials say he soon became one in every of the world’s top arms dealers, transporting weapons from the previous Soviet military in Ilyushin transport planes, with a very lucrative business in war-torn African countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone. Mr. Bout denies that he knowingly trafficked arms.

Within the late Nineteen Nineties and early 2000s, america and European nations were sure that Mr. Bout’s weapons shipments weren’t only fueling death and misery but additionally violating United Nations arms embargoes. They were particularly alarmed by intelligence suggesting he can have done business with the Afghan Taliban and even Al Qaeda, charges he denies.

Eventually, america lured Mr. Bout right into a trap. In 2008, a pair of Drug Enforcement Administration agents posing as members of Colombia’s leftist FARC rebel group arranged a gathering in Bangkok with Mr. Bout to purchase weapons including 30,000 AK-47 rifles, plastic explosives and surface-to-air missiles to be used against Colombia’s government and the American military personnel supporting its campaign against the FARC.

“Viktor Bout was able to sell a weapons arsenal that will be the envy of some small countries,” Preet Bharara, then the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Recent York, said after his conviction. “He aimed to sell those weapons to terrorists for the aim of killing Americans.”

The FARC’s official status on the time as a foreign terrorist organization meant that Mr. Bout drew a compulsory federal minimum sentence of 25 years.

One former U.S. official accustomed to Mr. Bout’s situation said the Russian government’s interest in his freedom gave the impression to be personal and that he has ties to powerful people near President Vladimir V. Putin.

One other former American official pointed to a somewhat more principled reason: Mr. Bout was arrested in Thailand and extradited from there to Recent York. Russian officials have complained about what they call the growing “practice utilized by the U.S. of really hunting down our residents abroad and arresting them in other nations,” as Grigory Lukyantsev, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s commissioner for human rights, said in August, based on the Russian news outlet RT.

The primary former U.S. official said it was highly unlikely that, given the magnitude of his crimes, Mr. Bout could be freed in any deal for Ms. Griner — even when, as some have speculated, the trade were to incorporate Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine imprisoned in Moscow since December 2018 on espionage charges. The previous official said Russia had sought Mr. Bout’s release in even higher-profile cases prior to now and had been firmly rejected.

Each former officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to debate their knowledge of Mr. Bout’s case publicly.

Danielle Gilbert, an assistant professor of military and strategic studies on the U.S. Air Force Academy who focuses on hostage diplomacy, agreed that releasing Mr. Bout could be a difficult political proposition. But she didn’t rule out the concept. “It wouldn’t surprise me in the event that they’re at the least considering the likelihood,” she said, noting that she doesn’t speak for the U.S. government.

Mr. Bout has at the least one advocate for his release in america: Shira A. Scheindlin, the judge who presided over his case. In an interview, Ms. Scheindlin said that swapping Mr. Bout for Ms. Griner could be inappropriate, given the size of his offense in relation to her alleged violation.

But she said a deal that also included Mr. Whelan might even the scales. Mr. Bout has already served 11 years in prison, she noted, saying that “he was not a terrorist, in my view. He was a businessman.” Although she was required to impose his mandatory 25-year sentence, she added: “I assumed it was too high on the time.”

“So, having served so long as he has, I feel america’ interest in punishing him has been satisfied,” she said, “and it might not be a nasty equation to send him back if we get back these people who find themselves vital to us.”

Even when america were open to such a deal, Mr. Zissou said it might not be imminent. He said he believed that Russia — which insists Ms. Griner faces legitimate charges and just isn’t a political pawn — was determined to finish her trial before negotiating her release. “And that’s more likely to take a number of months,” he said.

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