Brittney Griner’s Freedom ultimately revolves around the release of a convicted Russian arms dealer whose life story inspired a Hollywood movie.
The US basketball star was released on Thursday after being detained in Russia in a prisoner exchange for Viktor’s fevernicknamed the “Merchant of Death” by his accusers.
Bout, a former Soviet military officer, is serving a 25-year prison term in the United States for conspiring to kill Americans, purchasing and exporting anti-aircraft missiles, and providing material support to a terrorist organization. Bout insists he is innocent.
Kremlin Palace has repeatedly called for Bout’s release, claiming his sentence in 2012 was “baseless and biased”.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said on Thursday that Bout had returned home to Russia after the exchange at Abu Dhabi airport.
“For a long time, the Russian Federation has been negotiating with the United States on the release of VA Bout,” the ministry said in a statement. “Washington categorically refuses to talk about bringing Russia in” [citizen] in the exchange scheme. However, the Russian Federation continues to actively work to rescue our compatriots.”
It added that as a result of Russia’s negotiations with the United States, Bout was “returning to his homeland”.
Bout’s American lawyer, Steve Zissou, said that Bout was staying with his wife and daughter. He added: “We are very grateful that after 15 long years, Viktor is finally reunited with his family.
Griner – who spent several years playing in the off-season for a Russian women’s basketball team – was arrested for drug smuggling at an airport in the Moscow region in February. Despite her testimony that she had unknowingly packed the cannabis oil found in her luggage, she was sentenced to nine years in prison in early August and transferred to a penal colony in New York. Mordovia in mid-November after losing the lawsuit.
The exchange, which US President Joe Biden confirmed on Thursday, did not include another American whom the State Department has falsely claimed to be detained, Paul Whelan. Whelan was arrested on espionage charges in 2018 and sentenced to 16 years in prison in a trial that US officials called unfair.
The families of Griner and Whelan have urged the White House to secure their release, including through a prisoner exchange if necessary.
At the heart of their bid is Bout, a man who has evaded international arrest warrants and asset freezes for years.
The Russian businessman, who speaks six languages, was arrested during a heavy crackdown in 2008 led by US anti-narcotics agents. Thailand disguised as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by the abbreviation FARC. He was eventually extradited to the US in 2010 after a lengthy trial.
“Viktor Bout has been the number one enemy of the international arms trade for many years, arming some of the most violent conflicts globally,” said Preet Bharara, US attorney in Manhattan. convicted in New York in 2012.
“He was finally brought to justice in an American court for agreeing to supply an astonishing amount of military-grade weapons to a terrorist organization committed to killing Americans.”
The trial focused on Bout’s role in supplying weapons to the FARC, a guerrilla group that waged an insurgency in Colombia until 2016. The United States said the weapons were intended to kill U.S. citizens.
But the history of Bout’s arms trade extends even further. He is accused of assembling a fleet of cargo planes to transport military-grade weapons to conflict zones around the world since the 1990s, sparking bloody conflicts from Liberia to the Sierra Leon and Afghanistan. Allegations of human trafficking activities in Liberia led US authorities to freeze his US assets in 2004 and block all US transactions.
Bout has repeatedly asserted that he runs legitimate businesses and acts only as a logistics provider. He is believed to be in his 50s, the age of which is disputed because of different passports and documents.
“His early days were a mystery,” said Douglas Farah, senior fellow at the Center for Strategy and International Assessment and co-author of a book on Bout. told CNN in 2010.
Farah told Mother Jones magazine in 2007 that according to his multiple passports, Bout was born in 1967 in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, the son of an accountant and a car mechanic. He said that Bout had graduated from the Military Foreign Language Institute, a famous feeder school for Russian military intelligence.
“He was a Soviet officer, most likely a lieutenant, who simply saw the opportunities presented by three factors that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union and the resulting state patronage: the plane was abandoned on the runway from Moscow to Kiev, unable to fly because of a lack of money for fuel or maintenance; huge stockpiles of surplus weapons guarded by defenders suddenly receive little or no pay; and explosive demand for those weapons from traditional customers of the Soviet Union and emerging armed groups from Africa to the Philippines,” Farah told the magazine.
Bout has said that he used to be an army officer in Mozambique. Others say it was actually Angola, where Russia had a large military presence at the time, Farah told CNN. He was first known when the United Nations began investigating him in the early 1990s and the United States began to get involved.
Bout – who is said to have used names including “Victor Anatoliyevich Bout”, “Victor But”, “Viktor Butt”, “Viktor Bulakin” and “Vadim Markovich Aminov” – is believed to have inspired the character the arms dealer played by him. Nicolas Cage in the 2005 movie “Lord of War”
In 2002, CNN’s Jill Dougherty met Bout in Moscow. She asked him about the charges against him – did he sell weapons to the Taliban? To al Qaeda? Does he supply rebels in Africa and get paid in blood diamonds? – and he denied each claim.
“It’s a false allegation and it’s a lie,” he said. “I’ve never touched diamonds in my life and I’m not a diamond person and I don’t want that business.”
“I am not afraid,” he told Dougherty. “I haven’t done anything in my life that I should be afraid of.”