- The US and Russia are in talks about swapping prisoners Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
- Bout was a prominent international arms dealer in the 1990s. A sting operation led to his arrest in 2008.
- A possible prisoner swap would mean Bout serves less than half of his sentence.
The Biden administration and the Kremlin are reportedly discussing a prisoner swap to free WNBA star Brittney Griner and ex-Marine Paul Whelan, two Americans detained in Russia.
In order to secure their release, the US has offered to trade back Viktor Bout, a convicted and notorious arms dealer imprisoned in the states, according to CNN.
Viktor Bout had a long career as an international arms dealer
Bout, born in Russia in 1967, started dealing weaponry internationally in the 1990s, orchestrating massive arms deals using cargo planes to transport weaponry and military equipment, Insider previously reported.
He is said to have done business and fueled conflicts in Afghanistan, Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Sudan, Insider reported.
Bout earned the nickname "The Merchant of Death" after a book of the same title by Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun, two American investigative reporters, detailed his business.
And his story inspired "Lord of War," a 2005 crime drama about an arms dealer loosely based on Bout's exploits starring Nicolas Cage, Jared Leto, and Ethan Hawke.
Bout was arrested and jailed in Thailand in 2008 after he was caught in a sting operation selling military weapons to US drug enforcement informants pretending to be arms buyers for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Prosecutors said he was attempting to make millions of dollars by selling weapons to FARC in the deal, a militant group from Colombia that waged a revolt in the country until 2016.
By 2010, he was finally extradited to America, where he was tried and convicted in 2011 in a Manhattan court on four charges of conspiring to kill Americans. Bout was sentenced to 25 years in US prison.
At the time of his sentencing, Manhattan US attorney Preet Bharara said, "Viktor Bout has been international arms trafficking enemy number one for many years, arming some of the most violent conflicts around the globe."
Russia fought back after Bout's arrest and 25-year sentence. In 2012, the Kremlin called his sentencing "baseless and biased," CNN reported.
A US appeals court in 2013 upheld Bout's conviction and sentencing, rejecting the notion that he was a victim of a "vindictive" prosecution, Reuters reported at the time.
Bout surfaces as a possible prisoner swap target
After Whelan was first detained in 2020, his attorney suggested that a prisoner swap between Russia and the US for Bout was possible. In 2022, Griner was also detained after airport officials found hashish oil in her luggage.
She was tried in Russian court, found guilty of drug smuggling, and sentenced to 9 years in Russian prison.
Vice Presisdent Kamala Harris said securing Griner and Whelan's safe return is one of the White House's "highest priorities."
The US offered Bout to Russia after Griner's arrest in exchange for the two held Americans, CNN first reported. While the Biden administration hasn't publicly confirmed the details of their offer, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US had made a "substantial proposal."
The Kremlin responded to the offer one week later on Friday by saying they were willing to discuss a potential prisoner swap.
The reported prisoner swap deal has drawn some criticism, including from former chief of operations at the US Drug Enforcement Administration Michael Braun, who wrote in a Foreign Policy column that releasing Bout would pose a "grave threat" to national security and be a "slap in the face" of law enforcement who risked their lives to arrest him.
Former President Donald Trump also slammed the deal, calling Griner a "potentially spoiled person" who was "loaded up with drugs."
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