- The US and Russia are in talks to swap prisoners Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
- Bout was a prominent international arms dealer in the 1990s. A sting operation led to his arrest in 2008.
- A possible prisoner swap would mean Booth is serving less than half of his sentence.
The Biden administration and the Kremlin are reportedly discussing a prisoner swap for the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner and former Marine Paul Whelan, two Americans held in Russia.
To secure their release, the US offered to exchange Viktor Bout, a convicted and notorious arms dealer imprisoned in the states, according to CNN.
Victor Booth had a long career as an international arms dealer
Bout, born in Russia in 1967, began dealing in arms internationally in the 1990s, orchestrating massive arms deals using planes to transport weapons and military equipment, Insider previously reported.
It is said to have operated and fueled conflicts in Afghanistan, Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Sudan, Insider reported.
Booth earned the nickname “The Merchant of Death” after a book of the same title by Douglas Farah and Stephen Brown, two American investigative reporters, detailing his business.
And his story inspired “Lord of War,” a 2005 crime drama about an arms dealer loosely based on Bout’s exploits starring Nicolas Cage, Jared Leto and Ethan Hawke.
Bout was arrested and jailed in Thailand in 2008 after being caught in a sting operation selling military weapons to US drug enforcement informants posing as arms buyers for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Prosecutors said he was trying to make millions of dollars by selling weapons to the FARC, a Colombian militant group that led an insurgency in the country until 2016.
By 2010, he was finally extradited to America, where he was tried and convicted in 2011 in a Manhattan court of four counts of conspiracy to kill Americans. Booth was sentenced to 25 years in US prison.
At the time of his sentencing, Manhattan said US Attorney Preet Bharara“Viktor Bout has been the number one enemy of the international arms trade for many years, arming some of the most violent conflicts around the world.”
Russia reacted after Bout was arrested and sentenced to 25 years in prison. In 2012, the Kremlin called his conviction “baseless and biased”. CNN reported.
A US appeals court in 2013 upheld Bout’s conviction and sentence, rejecting the idea that he was the victim of a “vindictive” prosecution. Reuters reported at the time.
Beware of surfaces as a potential prisoner exchange target
After Whelan was first arrested in 2020, his lawyer suggested a prisoner swap between Russia and the US for Bout was possible. In 2022, Griner was also arrested after airport officials found hash oil in her luggage.
She was tried in a Russian court, found guilty of drug smuggling and sentenced to 9 years in prison in Russia.
Vice President Kamala Harris said ensuring the safe return of Griner and Whelan is one of the White House’s “highest priorities.”
The US offered Bout to Russia after Griner’s arrest in exchange for the two detained Americans, CNN first reported. While the Biden administration has not publicly confirmed the details of their offer, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said the US had made a “substantial offer”.
The Kremlin responded to the offer a week later on Friday, saying it was willing to discuss a possible prisoner exchange.
The reported prisoner swap deal has drawn some criticism, including from former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration chief of operations Michael Brown, who he wrote in a Foreign Policy column that Bout’s release would pose a “serious threat” to national security and would be a “slap in the face” to the law enforcement authorities who risked their lives to capture him.
Former President Donald Trump too struck the dealcalling Griner a “potential spoiled brat” who was “loaded on drugs.”