Russia warms to U.S. prisoner swap for arms trader Bout

  • Russia says it is seeking Bout’s return
  • Griner moved to the Russian region of Mordovia
  • Russia is counting on “positive” results.

LONDON, Nov 18 (Reuters) – Russia said on Friday it hoped to clinch a prisoner swap with the United States to return Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, known as the “Merchant of Death”, in a swap likely to include U.S. basketball. star Brittney Griner.

Amid the deadliest war in Europe since World War II, Russia and the United States are exploring a deal that could see imprisoned Americans including Griner return to the United States in exchange for Bout.

“I would like to hope that the prospects will not only remain but be strengthened, and the time will come when we will get a concrete agreement,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted as saying by Interfax.

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“America shows some external activities, we work professionally through special channels designed for this,” said Ryabkov. “Viktor Bout is one of those who are being discussed, and we are certainly counting on a positive result.”

For the two former Cold War foes, now struggling with the worst confrontation since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the exchange would mark one of the more unusual prisoner swaps in history.

The pointed comments from Ryabkov, the foreign minister’s official for America and arms control, contrasted with previous statements from Moscow that warned Washington against trying to engage in megaphone diplomacy over the prisoner swap.

The possible swap includes Griner, facing nine years behind bars in Russia after being convicted on drug charges, and Paul Whelan who is serving a 16-year sentence in Russia after being convicted of espionage charges that he denies.

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BOUT FOR GRINER

Variously nicknamed the “merchant of death” and the “sanctions buster” for his ability to break the arms embargo, Bout was one of the world’s most wanted men before his arrest in 2008 on various charges related to the arms trade.

For nearly two decades, Bout was one of the world’s most notorious arms dealers, selling weapons to rogue states, rebel groups and murderous warlords in Africa, Asia and South America.

But in 2008, Bout was caught up in an elaborate US sting.

Bout was caught on camera agreeing to sell US agents posing as representatives of Colombia’s leftist FARC guerrillas to launch 100 surface-to-air missiles, which would be used to kill US troops. Not long after that, he was arrested by the Thai police.

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Bout was tried on charges related to the FARC, which he denied, and in 2012 was convicted and sentenced by a court in Manhattan to 25 years in prison, the minimum possible sentence.

Since then, the Russian state has wanted to get him back.

Griner has been transferred to a penal colony in the Mordovia region, southeast of Moscow, his lawyer said on Thursday, confirming a Reuters report.

At his trial, Griner – who played basketball for the Russian team in the US off-season – said he had used cannabis to relieve a sports injury but did not mean to break the law. He told the court that he made an honest mistake​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge, Editing by Mark Trevelyan

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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