Metro Weekly

U.S. Offers to Release Convicted Arms Dealer in Exchange for Brittney Griner

Proposed prisoner swap would see Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan released in exchange for turning Viktor Bout back to Russia.

Phoenix Mercury WNBA Center Brittney Griner – Photo: Lorie Shaull, via Wikimedia.

The Biden administration has offered to exchange convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout as part of a deal to release WNBA star Brittney Griner and another American prisoner who the State Department claims is being unlawfully detained in Russia.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during a State Department news conference that the White House had made a “substantial” offer to the Kremlin to ensure Griner’s release. 

“There was a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release. Our governments have communicated repeatedly and directly on that proposal,” Blinken said. “And I’ll use the conversation to follow up personally and I hope move us toward a resolution.”

As part of the deal, the United States would reportedly release Bout, a former Soviet military officer who became rich as an arms dealer, reports CNN.

Labeled the “Merchant of Death,” Bout is currently serving a 25-year prison sentence after being arrested during a federal sting operation in 2008. Bout, who was accused with conspiring to sell weapons to people who intended to kill Americans, was convicted of offering to sell weapons, including anti-aircraft missiles, to federal agents posing as members of the guerrilla group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

In exchange for Bout’s release, Russia would release Griner and Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine who the United States claims has been “wrongfully detained” since 2018, back into U.S. custody.

Whelan, who served as director of global security and investigations for an Michigan-based international automotive parts manufacturer at the time of his arrest, was detained while visiting Russia to attend the wedding of a fellow Marine. He was charged with espionage, and was sentenced to 16 years in prison, but has denied spying, claiming he was set up in a sting operation.

Griner, a lesbian, is currently on trial, having been arrested for allegedly trying to smuggle illegal drugs into Russia. If convicted, she could spend more than a decade in jail.

Blinken said he will urge his Russian counterpart, foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, to respond to the offer this week. Their chat will mark the first time the two have spoken since Russia invaded Ukraine.

According to CNN, the U.S. Department of Justice had opposed a prisoner trade to ensure Griner’s release, but caved to pressure from State and White House officials. The Biden administration has faced significant pressure to free Griner, the two-time Olympian and WNBA All-Star whose detention has outraged many.

Just hours before CNN reported on the proposed deal, Griner made her first testimony in her slow-moving trial.

Griner, a center for the Phoenix Mercury who plays for the Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg to earn extra money in the off-season, was arrested at Sheremetyevo International Airport in February following a 13-hour flight from the United States. Customs officials accused her of having two vape cartridges of hashish oil, a drug made from parts of the cannabis plant, in her luggage. 

Because cannabis is illegal in Russia, individuals possessing less than 6 grams of cannabis or two grams of hash can be fined or jailed for up to 15 days, according to the UK-based newspaper the Independent.

Griner reportedly had less than a gram of hash oil in the cartridges, but Russian officials are treating her much more harshly, accusing her of trying to “smuggle” drugs into the country — a charge that carries a harsher prison sentence. Many political observers believe the charges against her are contrived, and are part of an effort by Russia to lash out against the United States for vocally opposing the Russian invasion of Ukraine earlier this year.

According to Griner’s testimony, she had no idea what was happening when airport inspectors pulled her aside after finding the vape cartridges containing remnants of hashish oil. She claims no one explained to her what was going on, what rights she had or how she may defend herself, and was left without legal assistance for 16 hours. She was only given a brief translation of the charges against her at a hearing two days after her initial arrest.

“With [the cartridges] being accidentally in my bag, I take responsibility,” Griner told the court through a translator, “but I did not intend to smuggle or plan to smuggle anything into Russia.”

Earlier this month, Griner pleaded guilty to the charges against her in the hope of getting a less severe sentence, while maintaining there was no intent to smuggle any substances.

Griner previously penned a handwritten letter to President Joe Biden, asking the American president not to forget her or other Americans wrongfully detained in Russia, and to work to bring them home. 

“As I sit here in a Russian prison, alone with my thoughts and without the protection of my wife, family, friends, Olympic jersey, or any accomplishments, I’m terrified I might be here forever,” she wrote. “…I believe in you. I still have so much good to do with my freedom that you can help restore. … I am grateful for whatever you can do at this moment to get me home.”

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