Russia hints at the connection of the Griner case with the fate of the “dealer of death”

WASHINGTON. American professional basketball star accused of carrying hash oil in his luggage.

He is a notorious Russian arms dealer known as “Death Dealer” serving a 25-year federal prison sentence for conspiring to sell guns to people who said they planned to kill Americans.

And the Kremlin appears to be interested in tying their fates, in a potential deal with the Biden administration that would free them both.

The huge discrepancy between the cases of Britney Griner and Viktor Bout highlights the extreme difficulties President Biden will face if he seeks a prisoner swap to free Ms Biden. Griner, a detained WNBA player, is out of custody in Moscow. A Biden administration unwilling to create incentives to arrest or kidnap Americans abroad would find it hard to justify releasing a villainous figure like Mr. Biden. Bolt.

At the same time, Mr. Biden is under pressure to release Ms. Griner, who was arrested at an airport near Moscow in February and whom the State Department classified in May as “wrongfully detained”. This reflects concern that the Kremlin sees her as leverage in a tense confrontation between the United States and Russia over Ukraine. Last week, dozens of groups representing people of color, women and LGBT Americans sent a letter urging Mr. Biden to “make a deal for Britney to return home to America immediately and safely.”

RS. Griner’s trial, which began on Friday, has been postponed until the following Thursday.

mr. Bout, 55, a former Soviet military man who made his fortune trading arms around the world before being caught in a federal sting operation, could be the price of any deal. Russian officials put pressure on Mr. The Bout case has been going on for years, and in recent weeks the Russian media has directly linked his case to Ms. Bout. Griner. Some, including the state news service TASS, even claimed that negotiations with Washington on a possible exchange are already underway, which US officials do not confirm.

mr. Bout’s New York attorney, Steve Zissou, said in an interview that Russian authorities are pushing for Bout’s release. Bolt, who was convicted in 2011 offers to sell weapons, including anti-aircraft 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 the US, in Washington in June and that Mr. Antonov informed him that Mr. Bout’s release was a very important matter for the Russian government.

“The American side has been very clearly advised that they will have to deal with Viktor Bout for real if they expect any further prisoner exchanges,” he said. Zissu said. “I believe that no American will go home unless Victor Bout is sent home with him.”

US officials declined to confirm this version and would not discuss any potential deal to free Ms. Li. Laughs. The State Department has effectively dismissed questions about worldwide prisoner exchanges, warning that they set a dangerous precedent.

“Using wrongful detention as a bargaining chip poses a threat to the safety of everyone who travels, works and lives abroad,” department spokesman Ned Price said recently.

mr. Biden did agree exchange of prisoners in April, in which Russia released Trevor Reed, a former US Marine from Texas who had been held in custody since 2019 on charges of assaulting two police officers. The United States on Friday returned Konstantin Yaroshenko, a pilot sentenced in 2011 to 20 years in prison for drug smuggling. But White House officials stressed that Mr. Reid’s ill health made his case exceptional.

Many people expressed their support for Mrs. Griner, star athlete and basketball icon. Less obvious is the Russian government’s solidarity with the titan of organized crime, with ties to terrorists and war criminals. In December, the government building in Moscow exhibited two dozen Mr. Booth’s pencil sketches and other works of art created in his cell at the Federal Penitentiary near Marion, Illinois.

By the time of his arrest in 2008, Booth (pronounced “boot”) was so famous that Nicolas Cage’s portrayal of the arms dealer in the 2005 film Lord of War was based on his life.

Born in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, he attended a Russian military school and served as an officer in the Soviet Air Force.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, G. Bout began to earn money by transporting goods between continents. US officials say he soon became one of the world’s biggest arms dealers, transporting former Soviet military weapons in Ilyushin transport planes, and his particularly lucrative business was in war-torn African countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone. mr. Booth denies knowingly trading arms.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the United States and European countries believed that Mr. Bout’s arms sales not only sowed death and suffering, but also violated the UN arms embargo. They were particularly alarmed by intelligence suggesting he may have been doing business with the Afghan Taliban and even al-Qaeda, allegations he denies.

In the end, the United States lured Mr. Boy into a trap. In 2008, a pair of DEA agents posing as members of the Colombian left-wing rebel group FARC arranged a meeting in Bangkok with Mr. J. Booth to purchase weapons, including 30,000 AK-47s, plastic explosives and air defense systems , for use against the Colombian government and the US military supporting its campaign against the FARC.

“Viktor Bout was willing to sell a weapons arsenal that some small countries would envy,” said Preet Bharara, then U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. said after conviction. “He intended to sell these weapons to terrorists for the purpose of killing Americans.”

The FARC’s official status at the time as a foreign terrorist organization meant that Mr. Booth received a mandatory federal minimum term of 25 years.

One former US official who knows Mr. The Bout situation showed that the Russian government’s interest in his release appeared to be personal, and that he was connected to powerful people close to President Vladimir Putin.

Another former US official pointed to a slightly more fundamental reason: Mr. Booth was arrested in Thailand and extradited from there to New York. Russian officials have complained about what they call a growing “practice used by the US to actually hunt down our citizens abroad and arrest them in other countries,” Russian Foreign Ministry Human Rights Commissioner Grigory Lukyantsev said in August. according to the Russian news agency RT.

The first former US official said it was highly unlikely, given the scale of his crimes, that Mr. Booth would be Friday in any deal for Ms. Griner, even if, as some have suggested, the deal includes Paul Whelan, a former US Marine who has been imprisoned in Moscow since December 2018 on espionage charges. The former official said Russia’s search for Mr. Bout’s release in even more high-profile cases in the past has been vehemently denied.

Both former officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss their knowledge of Mr. Booth in public.

Danielle Gilbert, an assistant professor of military and strategic studies at the US Air Force Academy who specializes in hostage diplomacy, agreed that releasing Mr. Bout would be a difficult political proposition. But she didn’t rule out the idea. “It wouldn’t surprise me if they are even considering this possibility,” she said, noting that she does not represent the US government.

mr. Bout has at least one advocate for his release in the United States: Shira A. Sheindlin, the judge who presided over his case. In an interview, Mr. Sheindlin said that the replacement for Mr. A fight for Ms Griner would be inappropriate given the magnitude of his offense in relation to her alleged offense.

But she said the deal, which also included Mr. Whelan, could even the balance. mr. Bout has already served 11 years in prison, she noted, saying that “in my opinion, he was not a terrorist. He was a businessman.” Although she was required to give him a mandatory 25-year sentence, she added: “At the time, I thought that was too much.”

“So having served as much as he served, I think the interest of the United States in punishing him has been satisfied,” she said, “and it would be a good idea to send him back if we bring back these people who are important to us.”

Even if the United States were open to such a deal, Mr Zissou said it would not be inevitable. He said he believes Russia, which Ms Griner insists is legally charged and not a political pawn – she was determined to complete the trial before negotiating her release. “And it will probably take several months,” he said.