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19 Aug 2022 7:48
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  •   Home > News > International

    Brittney Griner has been sentenced to jail time in Russia. Could a controversial prisoner swap bring her home?

    Brittney Griner's fate could depend on a man imprisoned thousands of kilometres away — an international arms dealer dubbed the "Merchant of Death" who could be offered up in a prisoner swap deal between the US and Russia.

    Moments before Brittney Griner was sentenced in a Russian court, she made a last-ditch and emotional appeal to be spared from a lengthy prison term.

    "I know that everybody keeps talking about 'political pawn' and politics," she said from behind bars in an area known as the defendant's cage.

    "But I hope that that is far from this courtroom."

    Her pleas were ignored, with the American basketball star sentenced to nine years in prison for bringing vape cartridges containing cannabis oil into Russia.

    Whether or not she actually serves that term could depend on a man imprisoned thousands of kilometres away – an international arms dealer dubbed the "Merchant of Death".

    Once considered one of the world's most wanted men, Viktor Bout is now a little less than halfway through his 25-year sentence at a prison in Marion, Illinois.

    The notorious arms dealer who could be used as a bargaining chip

    The United States has taken the extraordinary step of publicly revealing it has made Moscow a "substantial offer" for the release of Griner and former marine Paul Whelan, both of whom it considers to be wrongfully detained.

    While not officially confirmed, there is widespread speculation the proposed deal would see the two Americans swapped for convicted arms dealer Bout.

    For almost two decades, authorities allege Bout sold weaponry to rogue states, rebel groups and murderous warlords all over the world until he was finally arrested in Thailand in 2008 as part of an elaborate sting operation.

    Two years later he was extradited to the US, where he was found guilty of conspiring to sell millions of dollars' worth of weapons to a terrorist organisation to be used to kill Americans in Columbia.

    "Today, one of the world's most prolific arms dealers is being held accountable for his sordid past," then-US attorney-general Eric Holder said at the time.

    Bout had long been a target of US authorities.

    His career is even reported to have inspired the central character, played by Nicolas Cage, in the 2005 film Lord of War.

    "Prior to him, arms dealers would largely work on sort of one-off deals," said journalist Steve Braun, who has reported on Bout for years and co-wrote the biography Merchant of Death.

    "They would have to find somebody to ship the arms, whether they would hire private planes or whether they would ship them by boat."

    He says Bout saw an opportunity, offering not only to sell arms but also to deliver them.

    "He provided sort of a one-stop shopping network. He would source the arms in a number of eastern European arms factories … and then he would fly those weapons on his own planes."

    At the height of Bout's influence, Braun estimates he had a fleet of 60 cargo planes flying across Europe, Central Asia and Africa.

    His book alleges the 55-year-old's clients included former Liberian president Charles Taylor, who is serving a 50-year prison sentence for war crimes, and former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

    'Two for one … it's a very fair trade'

    Bout was arrested after informants working for the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) posed as representatives of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Columbia (FARC), a group designated as a narco-terrorist organisation.

    Prosecutors alleged he had agreed to sell weapons, including surface-to-air missiles and rocket launchers, on the understanding they would be used to attack American helicopters in Columbia.

    Bout pleaded not guilty, arguing he was targeted out of embarrassment after it became known his companies had flown supply missions for the US military in Iraq.

    But he was ultimately convicted by a jury and sentenced to a mandatory minimum of 25 years in prison.

    "I still think it's too long, I always thought it was too long," Shira Scheindlin, the former US district judge who presided over the case, said.

    "I think when the government prosecuted this guy, and when the probation department wrote it up, they really wanted to sentence him for his whole career, not just for that crime that was tried in my courtroom."

    Judge Scheindlin supports swapping Bout for both Griner and Whelan, who was sentenced to 16 years in a Russian prison after being convicted of espionage.

    "If he [Bout] was exchanged only for Brittney Griner, I'm not sure I would feel that way because it would be so unequal," she said.

    "For the two for one, I think it's a very fair trade. Why should we keep him in our jails and pay for the cost of that?

    "Get rid of him."

    Why does Putin want this particular prisoner?

    One of the big questions yet to be answered is why Russia is so keen on getting Bout back.

    Born in the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan, he speaks at least six languages and attended a military languages school known to be a "feeder" to Russian intelligence services.

    He denies having worked as a spy, although Braun's reporting suggests strong links to Russian intelligence.

    The journalist speculated that, while many of Bout's main contacts have died or been replaced since he was imprisoned, Moscow could be looking to tap into his prior knowledge and networks.

    "On the other hand, it's also possible that, in essence, Vladimir Putin wants him back simply in the same way that the US marines say, 'We leave no man behind,'" Braun said.

    "You know, the Russian government wants their people back."

    Secretary of State Antony Blinken used a recent phone call with his Russian counterpart to urge Russia to accept America's proposal.

    "We are ready to discuss this topic, but within the framework of a channel that was agreed upon by Presidents [Vladimir] Putin and [Joe] Biden," Sergei Lavrov said after Griner’s sentence was delivered.

    Dr Dani Gilbert, a fellow in US foreign policy and international security at Dartmouth College, said it was highly unusual for the State Department to publicise any aspect of its negotiations.

    "It might be useful to convince or persuade some faction in the Russian government to take the deal or to put someone in a corner in terms of the negotiation," Dr Gilbert said.

    It was also possible that the White House wanted to dampen criticism that it was not working quickly enough to bring its citizens home, she added.

    The families of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan have become increasingly vocal in their efforts to secure the release of their loved ones, ramping up public pressure on US President Joe Biden.

    Dr Gilbert said the administration needed to weigh that up against the risk of sending the wrong message to America's adversaries, warning there was likely still a difficult path ahead.

    "They are extremely complex," she said of past prisoner exchanges.

    "They take months, if not years, to resolve."

    "You know, someone is taking your citizens hostage or arresting them wrongfully, they're not the kind of person who's going to be very easy to convince to let your people go.

    "And so the Russians have a lot of leverage here, they have a lot of power, they are going to want to milk this situation for everything they've got."

    © 2022 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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