- Paul Kirby
- BBC reporter
US and Russia reach prisoner swap deal. American women’s basketball star Brittney Griner (Griner) imprisoned in Russia has been released in exchange for the release of drug dealer Viktor Bout (Viktor Bout), who was imprisoned in the United States for 12 years.
U.S. President Joe Biden said on Thursday (December 8) that Greiner was safe and on the plane back to the United States from the United Arab Emirates.
“I’m happy to say that Britney is in a good mood right now … she needs time and space to recover,” Biden said at the White House.
Russian media reported that Bout, known as the “merchant of death”, had arrived in Moscow.
“In the middle of the night, they woke me up and said ‘pack up your stuff’ and that was it,” Bout said in a brief interview on state television after landing in Russia.
According to reports, Bout was holding a bouquet of flowers as he walked down the gangway of the plane, and then he hugged his mother and wife.
Greiner was arrested at Moscow airport in February on charges of possessing marijuana oil. She was sent to a place of exile last month.
The Biden administration proposed a prisoner swap in July, and Moscow has long sought Bout’s release.
The carefully orchestrated prisoner swap involved two private jets flying the pair from Moscow and Washington to Abu Dhabi before returning them to their home countries.
Russian state media aired footage that appeared to be provided by Russian security services, showing the two men brushing past each other with their respective teams on the tarmac.
“The Russian citizen has returned to his home country,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Speaking at the White House, Britney Greiner’s wife, Cherelle, praised the Biden administration’s efforts to secure Greiner’s release: “I stand here with the utmost emotion.”
According to a joint statement issued by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman and UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan met at the Played a lead role in the mediation process.
The Saudi crown prince is on good terms with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and in September he helped coordinate a complex Russian-Ukrainian exchange of hundreds of prisoners.
However, the White House denied any intermediary mediation was involved. “The only ones involved in negotiating this agreement are the United States and Russia,” said press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.
When negotiations began over the summer, the U.S. had asked former Marine Paul Whelan to be included in the swap deal.
But the family’s hopes were dashed when it was later revealed that Whelan, who was imprisoned on espionage charges in 2018, would not be part of the Russian exchange deal.
Bout’s lawyer, Alexei Tarasov, told Russian television that from the start the US had wanted the two citizens back, while the Russian foreign ministry accused “Washington of categorically refusing to engage in dialogue”.
Paul Whelan told CNN he was “incredibly disappointed” that more was not done to seek his release because he had committed no crime: “I don’t understand why I’m still here.”
President Biden eventually signed the order releasing Bout, thereby suspending his original 25-year sentence in direct exchange for Glenner’s release.
Bout’s wife, Alla, told Russian television she spoke to her husband just two days ago: “He was supposed to call me tonight. Now we can meet and hug each other. It’s better than any phone call. “
Victor Bout became the most wanted man in the world for selling arms to warlords and rogue governments.
In the post-Soviet years, Russians who smuggled firearms were known as “merchants of death,” an act that inspired a 2005 Hollywood film, “Lord of War.” Part of the subject matter comes from Bout’s story.
His secretive career came to an abrupt end in 2008, when he was arrested in a hotel in the Thai capital Bangkok in an elaborate U.S. sting operation, outraged by the Russian government.
He was extradited two years later and has spent 12 years in a US prison on charges of supporting terrorists and murdering US citizens.
Another man in this prisoner exchange was a starkly different situation than Bout.
Britney Greener, 32, is one of the most famous female athletes in the United States. The two-time Olympic champion is the star center for the Phoenix Mercury in the WNBA — but only during the USA Basketball season.
When the U.S. season was on hiatus, the only reason she flew to Moscow was to play in Russia. During her interrogation in Russia, she said the cannabis oil in her duffel bag was an “inadvertent mistake”.
Greiner was sent last month to a penal colony in Mordovia, about 500 kilometers southeast of Moscow. She was being held not far from Paul Whelan, who was serving 16 years in prison on espionage charges.
U.S. President Joe Biden said in a statement that Russia’s treatment of Whelan’s case was different from that of Greiner, which is completely unreasonable.
“While we have not succeeded in getting Paul released, we have not given up; we will not give up,” he said.
Former White House national security adviser John Bolton denounced it as not an exchange but a capitulation by the Biden administration.
“Terrorists and rogue governments around the world will take notice, and it will put other Americans at risk in the future,” he said.
The agreement was also criticized by Robert Zachariasiewicz, a former DEA agent who helped lead the team that apprehended Victor Bout.
“Today’s action is literally putting a target on the back of every American citizen who travels around the world, and then they become a commodity,” he told the BBC in an interview.
“I think we’re sending a message that illegally detaining and even kidnapping American citizens is a good business, and it’s really good to have one in your hand and exchange it for future needs.”
Vladimir Osechkin, the former Russian lawmaker who led the parliamentary inquiry into Bout and now a dissident living in France, told the BBC’s Outside Source program that he believed Putin wanted Bout came back because he knew a lot.
“Putin and the generals are concerned that Viktor Bout may begin to provide exhaustive evidence of what he knows to be Russian intelligence aiding terrorist groups and organizing sabotage in foreign countries,” he said.
“It’s a matter of dignity for them to bring their surrogate back.”
Thursday’s prisoner swap was not the first of its kind between Russia and the United States this year. US Marine Trevor Reed, who spent three years in prison on assault charges, was released in April in exchange for Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko accused of cocaine smuggling ).
Paul Whelan, who is in exile in Russia, said he was told Russia “puts me at a higher level than Trevor and Britney” because he was charged with espionage.
President Joe Biden urged Americans to take precautions before traveling overseas, warning of the risk of being wrongfully detained by a foreign government.
Who Is Britney Greener?
Britney Greiner, who has been imprisoned by Russia for more than 10 months, is one of the most famous players in the WNBA and is considered by some to be one of the greatest players in women’s basketball history.
The 32-year-old disappeared while passing through Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport on February 17 — just a week before Russia officially invaded Ukraine.
She was jailed for nine years for having cannabis oil in her luggage.
Her father was a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served in the Vietnam War and later served as a police officer in Houston.
Greiner is 2.05 meters tall. He was bullied for being too tall in his youth, but at the same time he showed extraordinary basketball talent. In high school with the Nimitz Cougars, he set a record with 52 dunks in 32 games at the state championship.
After entering the professional league, she became one of the most dominant players in the history of the WNBA, won a league championship, was selected as a WNBA All-Star eight times, won four EuroLeague championships, and won two Olympic women’s basketball gold medals.
In 2019, she married her current girlfriend, Cherelle Watson.
On February 24 this year, Russian troops invaded Ukraine, EuroLeague banned all Russian teams, and U.S. and WNBA officials began calling on their players to leave Russia.
However, at the time Greiner was believed to have arrived in Russia a week earlier and had been detained.
In May, the U.S. State Department said Greiner had been wrongfully detained and began a search for her release.
His wife, Cheryl, hugged President Joe Biden at the White House on Thursday after learning of Greiner’s release.
Who is Victor Bout?
Bout was born in Soviet-era Tajikistan and is now a Russian citizen. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, he started the air transport business.
According to the 2007 book “Lord of War” written by security experts, he started out using old military aircraft left at the airport after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
He is the most notorious arms dealer in the world, and his story was even adapted into the Hollywood movie “Lord of War”.
In 2010, DEA agents posed as Colombian arms buyers and ensnared Bout in Bangkok, Thailand.
He was convicted in 2012 of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and U.S. officials — responding to the sentence, according to prosecutors: “We have a common enemy.”
Aged 45 at the time of his conviction, he is accused of initially targeting war-torn Africa.
The United Nations said he had links to former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who was convicted in 2012 of war crimes during Sierra Leone’s civil war.
According to the United Nations, Bout helped provide arms that enabled Taylor to challenge the war in Sierra Leone and illegally obtain diamonds from that country.
Media reports said he was smuggling firearms for al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the Middle East.
In addition, he is also accused of being involved in arms trafficking in the civil war in Angola, as well as wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central Africa, Sudan and Libya.
In 2002, living in Belgium, he successfully left the country after the authorities issued an arrest warrant. It is said that he fled in the United Arab Emirates, South Africa and other countries through multiple false identities, and then returned to Russia.
The U.S. froze his assets in 2006, but he was not prosecuted under U.S. law until the sting operation.
Bout claimed that the US’s arrest of him was a political action, and his wife said that his only connection with Colombia was “learning to dance tango”.
The Russian government has backed him throughout his lengthy legal process, with then-Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov claiming to fight to bring him back to Russia.
Now, after 12 years incarcerated, he seems to have waited for this day – which is slightly similar to the ending of the main character in “Lord of War” who managed to escape.