The Biden administration has offered to exchange a convicted Russian arms trafficker serving 25 years in a U.S. prison to secure the release of two Americans held in Russian prisons including U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner, sources told CNN.
Griner has been jailed in Moscow for drug possession since February, around the time Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. A second prisoner involved in the potential exchange, U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, has been imprisoned in Russia since 2018 for alleged espionage.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced Wednesday that the U.S. presented a “substantial proposal” to Moscow “weeks ago” for Griner and Whelan, saying he intended to discuss the matter this week on a call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
The Department of Justice generally opposes prisoner swaps, but Biden’s support for the exchange overrides such opposition, CNN reported.
Bout, 55, is a former Soviet military translator who got involved in international air transportation after the fall of communism. He is serving a 25-year sentence at a medium-security prison in Illinois for selling weapons to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and conspiring to kill U.S. nationals, Washington Post reported.
“Today, one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers is being held accountable for his sordid past,” Attorney General Eric Holder said when Bout was convicted in New York in 2011.
Griner, who plays basketball in Russia during the WNBA’s offseason, told a Russian court she never intended to bring cannabis oil into Russia in her luggage.
“I still don’t understand to this day how they ended up in my bags,” said Griner, who was arrested at a Moscow airport and accused of smuggling significant amounts of a narcotic substance. She faces up to 10 years in prison.
Photo: Russian arms smuggler Viktor “Merchant of Death” Bout arrives at a criminal court in Bangkok, Thailand, Oct. 5, 2010. (AP Photo/Apichart Weerawong, File)/Photo: Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner plays in the WNBA finals against the Chicago Sky, Oct. 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri, File)