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Viktor Bout: Russia hopeful for arms dealer prisoner swap with US

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    15 hours ago

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Image source, Getty Images

Russia is hopeful it can agree a prisoner swap with the US that would include infamous arms trafficker Viktor Bout, known as the Merchant of Death.

It is the first time US or Russian officials have publicly said Bout could be part of an exchange.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Friday he hoped the prospect of a swap had “strengthened”.

The US has previously said it was eager to organise a prisoner swap to release US basketball player Brittney Griner.

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She was convicted of illegal drug possession in August after cannabis oil vapes were found in her bags as she tried to enter Russia.

The double-Olympic winner has been sent to a penal colony in a remote region south-east of Moscow.

On Friday Mr Ryabkov said a “common denominator” had not yet been reached between the US and Russia, but “it is undeniable that Viktor Bout is among those who are being discussed [for exchange] and we certainly count on a positive result”.

He also said Bout had been “persecuted” in the United States and wished him the “firmness of will and spirit” to cope with his incarceration.

Bout – a former Soviet air force officer – was extradited from Thailand to the US in 2010, after a sting operation by the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).

One of the world’s most infamous arms dealers, his exploits are so notorious that they inspired a Hollywood film and led to his nickname.

He was sentenced to 25 years in prison after being found guilty of conspiracy to kill Americans and US officials, delivering anti-aircraft missiles and aiding a terrorist organisation.

He claimed he was simply an entrepreneur with a legitimate international transport business, wrongly accused of trying to arm South American rebels – the victims of US political machinations.

But a jury in New York did not believe his story.

It is unclear exactly why Russia wants Bout returned, but some analysts believe it might be because he has links with Russian military intelligence.

Mark Galeotti, an expert on the Russian security services at the Royal United Services Institute think-tank, told Reuters he believes Bout’s case has become “totemic” for Russian intelligence who are keen to show they do not abandon their own people.

U.S. basketball player Brittney Griner stands inside a defendants' cage in August 2022

Image source, Reuters

There have been reports in US media suggesting Russia was interested in exchanging the arms dealer for basketball star Brittney Griner.

In July, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said a “substantial offer” had been made to bring two American detainees home from Russia.

Griner was arrested at an airport near Moscow in February when cannabis oil vapes were found in her bags.

She said she had made an “honest mistake”, but lost her appeal against the conviction in early November and for some time it was not clear where she had been sent to serve her nine-year sentence.

Earlier this week, her lawyers confirmed she is being held in IK-2 women’s penal colony in the remote village of Yavas in Mordovia, 500km (310 miles) south-east of the capital.

There have also been reports another American detainee could be included in a potential prisoner exchange – Paul Whelan.

The former US marine, convicted as an American spy, has been serving time in a Russian labour camp.

In the first interview since his arrest, Mr Whelan described his time locked up as a “very, very grim existence”.

Mr Whelan – who also has British, Irish and Canadian citizenship – has always insisted on his innocence.

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