A Russian diplomat has confirmed that Moscow is negotiating a prisoner exchange involving Brittney Griner and notorious “Merchant of Death” arms dealer Viktor Bout.
The American basketball star was sentenced to a nine-year prison sentence in Russia earlier this month over a small amount of cannabis oil that was discovered in her luggage at a Moscow airport.
“The discussions on the very sensitive topic of an exchange are proceeding via the channels chosen by our presidents,” said Alexander Datchiev, the head of the North America department at the Russian Foreign Ministry, according to state news agency TASS.
“Silent diplomacy continues and should bear fruit if Washington, of course, is careful not to fall into propaganda.”
Bout, a 55-year-old former Soviet military officer, was arrested in Bangkok in 2008 in a sting operation in which US officials posed as Colombian rebels. He was held in custody for two years in Thailand before being extradited to the US to go on trial.
In April 2012, a US judge sentenced him to 25 years for attempting to sell heavy weapons to the Colombian “rebels.”
Bout, 55, had agreed to sell 100 portable surface-to-air missiles and around 5,000 AK-47 assault rifles to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia during the meeting at a Bangkok hotel.
But instead, he had actually sat down with US Drug Enforcement Administration officials posing as members of the left-wing guerrilla group that was designated a terror organisation by the US.
Whelan was convicted of espionage in June 2020 and sentenced to 16 years in prison.
Last week, former UN Ambassador Bill Richardson, who has been working to free Griner, said he was “optimistic” she would be returned to US soil in a prisoner exchange.
“I think she’s going to be freed,” Mr Richardson told This Week host George Stephanopoulos.
“I think she has the right strategy of contrition, a good legal team. There’s going to be a prisoner swap, though. And I think it will be two-for-two involving Paul Whelan. We can’t forget him. He’s an American Marine wrongfully detained, too.”