Just before being convicted by a Russian court, Brittney Griner made a last-ditch and emotional appeal to save a lengthy prison sentence.
“I know everyone 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’s far from this courtroom.”
Her pleas were ignored, with the American basketball star being sentenced to nine years in prison for bringing cannabis oil vaping cartridges into Russia.
Whether she actually fulfills that term may depend on a man imprisoned thousands of miles away – an international arms dealer dubbed the “Merchant of Death.”
Viktor Bout, once considered one of the world’s most wanted men, is now just under halfway through his 25-year sentence in a Marion, Illinois prison.
The infamous arms dealer who can be used as a medium of exchange
The United States has taken the extraordinary step of publicly disclosing that it has made Moscow a “substantial offer” for the release of Griner and former Marine Paul Whelan, who both believe they have been wrongly detained.
Though not officially confirmed, there is widespread speculation that the proposed deal would trade the two Americans for convicted arms dealer Bout.
For nearly two decades, authorities have claimed that Bout sold weapons to rogue states, rebel groups and murderous warlords around the world, until he was finally arrested in Thailand in 2008 as part of an elaborate covert operation.
Two years later, he was extradited to the US, where he was found guilty of conspiracy to sell millions of dollars worth of weapons to a terrorist organization to kill Americans in Colombia.
“Today, one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers is 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 said to have even inspired the central character, played by Nicolas Cage, in the 2005 film Lord of War.
“Before him, arms dealers largely worked on one-off deals,” says journalist Steve Braun, who has reported on Bout for years and co-wrote the Merchant of Death biography.
“They would have to find someone to ship the weapons, whether they would rent private planes or ship them by boat.”
He says Bout saw an opportunity not only to sell weapons, but also to supply them.
“He established a kind of one-stop-shopping network. He would buy the weapons in some Eastern European arms factories … and then he would pilot those weapons on his own planes.”
At the height of Bout’s influence, Braun estimates that he had a fleet of 60 cargo planes flying through Europe, Central Asia, and Africa.
His book claims the now 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 from the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) impersonated representatives of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), a group classified as a narco-terrorist organization.
Prosecutors alleged that he had agreed to sell weapons, including surface-to-air missiles and rocket launchers, on the understanding that they would be used to attack US helicopters in Columbia.
Bout pleaded not guilty, alleging that he was targeted out of shame after it was revealed that his companies had flown supply missions for the US military in Iraq.
But he was eventually 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,” said Shira Scheindlin, the former U.S. district judge who presided over the case.
“I think when the government prosecuted this man, and when the probation service wrote it down, they really wanted to convict him for his entire career, not just 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] only traded 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 prisons and pay the costs?
“Get rid of him.”
Why does Putin want this particular prisoner?
One of the big questions that remain to be answered is why Russia is so eager to get Bout back.
Born in the former Soviet Republic of Tajikistan, he speaks at least six languages and attended a military language school known as a “feeder” for Russian intelligence.
He denies having worked as a spy, although Braun’s reporting suggests strong ties to Russian intelligence.
The journalist speculated that while many of Bout’s key contacts have died or been replaced since he was imprisoned, Moscow may try to tap into his insider knowledge and networks.
“On the other hand, it’s also possible that Vladimir Putin essentially wants him back, just in the same way the US Marines say, ‘We’re not leaving anyone 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 the US proposal.
“We are ready to discuss this topic, but within the framework of a channel agreed upon by presidents [Vladimir] Putin and [Joe] Biden,” Sergei Lavrov said after Griner’s statement.
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 disclose any aspect of its negotiations.
“It can be helpful to persuade or persuade a faction in the Russian government to go into the deal or put someone in a corner in the negotiations,” said Dr Gilbert.
It was also possible that the White House wanted to temper criticism that it wasn’t working fast enough to get its citizens home, she added.
The families of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan have grown louder in their efforts to secure the release of their loved ones, increasing public pressure on US President Joe Biden.
dr. Gilbert said the administration had to weigh that against the risk of sending the wrong message to America’s adversaries, and warned that there was likely still a difficult path ahead.
“They are extremely complex,” she said of previous prisoner exchanges.
“It will take months, if not years, to resolve.”
“You know, someone is taking your citizens hostage or wrongly arresting them, they are not the kind of person who will be very easy to convince to let your people go.
“And so the Russians here have a lot of influence, they have a lot of power, they will want to milk this situation for everything they have.”