WASHINGTON — He is an American professional basketball star, accused of carrying hashish oil in his luggage.
He is a notorious Russian arms dealer known as the “merchant of death,” serving a 25-year federal prison sentence for conspiring to sell weapons to people who said they planned to kill Americans.
And the Kremlin seems interested in linking their fates, in a possible deal with the Biden administration that would free them both.
The wide disparity between the cases of Brittney Griner and Viktor Bout highlights the extreme difficulty that President Biden would face if he were to seek a prisoner exchange to free Ms. Griner, the detained WNBA player, from Moscow detention. A Biden administration, reluctant to create an incentive for the arrest or kidnapping of Americans abroad, would be hard-pressed to justify the release of an evil figure like Mr. Bout.
At the same time, Biden is under pressure to release Griner, who was arrested at a Moscow-area airport in February and was classified by the State Department in May as “wrongly detained.” That reflects concern that the Kremlin will consider her influence in the tense confrontation between the United States and Russia over Ukraine. Last week, dozens of groups representing people of color, women, and LGBTQ Americans sent a letter urging Mr. Biden to “make a deal to get Brittney back to the United States immediately and safely.”
Ms. Griner’s trial was scheduled to begin on Friday.
Mr. Bout, 55, a former Soviet military man who made a fortune in global arms trafficking before being caught in a federal sting operation, could be the price of any deal. Russian officials have pushed Mr. Bout’s case for years, and in recent weeks Russian media have directly linked his case with that of Ms. Griner. Some, including the state news service Tass, have even claimed that talks with Washington are already underway for a possible swap, something that US officials will not confirm.
Bout’s attorney in New York, Steve Zissou, said in an interview that Russian authorities are pushing to free Bout, who was convicted in 2011 of offering to sell weapons, including anti-aircraft missiles, to federal agents posing as members of the the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC. Mr. Zissou said that he met with Anatoly I. Antonov, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, in June in Washington and that Mr. Antonov told him that Mr. Bout’s release was a very high priority for the government. Russian.
“It has been very clearly communicated to the US side that they will have to be realistic with Viktor Bout if they expect more prisoner swaps,” Zissou said. “My feeling from this is that no American is going home unless Viktor Bout is sent home with them.”
US officials have refused to corroborate that notion and will not discuss any potential deal to free Ms. Griner. The State Department, as a matter of practice, dismisses questions about prisoner swaps around the world, warning that they set a dangerous precedent.
“Using wrongful detention as a bargaining chip poses a threat to the security of everyone who travels, works and lives abroad,” department spokesman Ned Price said recently.
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Biden agreed to a prisoner swap in April, in which Russia released Trevor Reed, a former US Marine from Texas who had been held since 2019 on charges of assaulting two police officers. The United States, in exchange, released Konstantin Yaroshenko, a pilot sentenced in 2011 to 20 years in prison for drug trafficking. But White House officials stressed that Reed’s failing health made his case exceptional.
Many people have expressed their 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 building in Moscow exhibited two dozen pencil sketches of Mr. Bout and other artwork produced from his cell in a federal prison building near Marion, Ill.
At the time of his arrest in 2008, Mr. Bout (pronounced “boot”) was so well known that an arms dealer character played by Nicolas Cage in the 2005 film “Lord of War” was based on his life.
Born in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, he attended a Russian military college and served as an officer in the Soviet air force.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mr. Bout began to make money transporting cargo between continents. US officials say he soon became one of the world’s leading arms dealers, transporting ex-Soviet army weapons on Ilyushin transport planes, with a particularly lucrative business in war-torn African countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone. Mr. Bout denies knowingly trafficking weapons.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the United States and European nations were certain that Mr. Bout’s arms shipments were not only fueling death and misery, but also violating arms embargoes. of the United Nations. They were particularly alarmed by intelligence suggesting he may have done business with the Afghan Taliban and even Al Qaeda, charges he denies.
Eventually, the United States lured Mr. Bout into a trap. In 2008, a pair of DEA agents posing as members of Colombia’s leftist FARC rebel group arranged a meeting in Bangkok with Bout to buy weapons, including 30,000 AK-47 rifles, plastic explosives and surface-to-air missiles to use. against the Colombian government and US military personnel supporting their campaign against the FARC.
“Viktor Bout was ready to sell an arsenal of weapons that would be the envy of some small countries,” Preet Bharara, then US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, he said after his sentence. “Their goal was to sell those weapons to terrorists for the purpose of killing Americans.”
The official status of the FARC at the time as a foreign terrorist organization meant that Mr. Bout received a mandatory minimum federal sentence of 25 years.
A former US official familiar with Bout’s situation said the Russian government’s interest in his freedom appeared to be personal and that he has ties to powerful people close to President Vladimir V. Putin.
Another former US official pointed to a somewhat more principled reason: Mr. Bout was arrested in Thailand and extradited from there to New York. Russian officials have complained about what they call the growing “practice used by the US to persecute our citizens abroad and arrest them in other nations,” as Grigory Lukyantsev, the foreign ministry’s human rights commissioner, put it. from Russia in August according to the Russian media outlet RT.
The first former US official said it was highly unlikely, given the scale of his crimes, that Bout would be freed in any deal for Griner, even if, as some have speculated, the trade included Paul Whelan, a former US Marine imprisoned in Moscow. since December 2018 on charges of espionage. The former official said Russia had sought Bout’s release in higher-profile cases in the past and had been firmly rejected.
Both former officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly of their knowledge of Mr. Bout’s case.
Danielle Gilbert, an assistant professor of military and strategic studies at the US Air Force Academy who specializes in hostage diplomacy, agreed that freeing Bout would be a difficult political proposition. But she did not dismiss the idea. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they were at least considering the possibility,” she said, noting that she is not speaking for the US government.
Mr. Bout has at least one advocate for his release in the United States: Shira A. Scheindlin, the judge who presided over his case. In an interview, Ms. Scheindlin said that swapping Mr. Bout for Ms. Griner would be inappropriate, given the scale of his offense in relation to the alleged rape.
But she said a deal that also included Mr. Whelan could even the scales. Mr. Bout has already served 11 years in prison, she noted, saying that he “was not a terrorist, in my opinion. He was a businessman”. Though she was bound to serve her mandatory 25-year sentence, she added, “I thought she was too tall at the time.”
“So, having served as long as he has, I think the interest of the United States in punishing him has been satisfied,” he said, “and it wouldn’t be a bad equation to send him back if we get these people back who are important to us.”
Even if the United States were open to such a deal, Zissou said it would not be imminent. He said he believed that Russia, which insists Griner faces legitimate charges and is not a political pawn, was determined to complete his trial before negotiating his release. “And that’s probably going to take a few months,” he said.