US offers to swap ‘Russian arms dealer Bout for Griner, Whelan’

Reports indicate that such an exchange could free Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner in exchange for Russian arms dealer.

Paul Whelan, Viktor Bout and Brittney Griner
US has offered Viktor Bout (C), a Russian arms dealer, in exchange for the release of Paul Whelan (L) and Brittney Griner (R) [File: Reuters]

The United States has put a “substantial proposal on the table” to facilitate the release of US citizens Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, both held by Russia in what the US has termed “wrongful detention”, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said.

Blinken said on Wednesday that he expects to speak with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in the coming days to discuss a “top priority” for the US: the release of Griner, a basketball star; and Whelan, a former marine.

“We put a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release. Our governments have communicated repeatedly and directly on that proposal, and I’ll use the conversation to follow up personally and, I hope, to move us towards a resolution,” Blinken told reporters.

“My hope would be that in speaking to Foreign Minister Lavrov, I can advance the efforts to bring them home,” Blinken said.

“We of course want to see those who are wrongfully detained be released and be able to return home. At the same time, it’s important that we be able to enforce the global norm against these arbitrary detentions.”

According to a CNN report, the US has offered Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer known as the “Merchant of Death” who was given a 25-year prison sentence by the US in 2012, in exchange for the release of Whelan and Griner.

On Thursday, the Kremlin confirmed talks were under way about a possible prisoner swap, but Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said “a concrete result has not yet been achieved”.

The potential deal is the latest development in an ongoing US effort to obtain the release of Griner and Whelan, who the US alleges are being wrongfully detained by Russia as tensions grow more strained following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February.

Griner was jailed in mid-February and has been charged with bringing drugs into Russia after authorities found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage at the Moscow airport. For his part, Whelan was taken into custody in December 2018 and charged with espionage. He was convicted and sentenced to a 16-year prison sentence.

The US has stated that both Whelan and Griner are being improperly detained, and have worked to secure their release.

Griner is currently on trial and testified before a Khimki District Court outside of Moscow on Wednesday, stating that her rights were not read to her when she was detained at the Moscow airport.

Griner, 31, said she was told to sign documents without any explanation and a language interpreter relayed only a portion of her detailed responses during interrogation following her arrest at the airport.

The WNBA All-Star has previously acknowledged that she brought vape canisters with cannabis oil into the country, noting that she had approval from a doctor to use them for an injury and packed them into her suitcase unintentionally. If that argument fails to convince Russian officials, she could face up to 10 years in prison. In a letter to Biden, Griner said that she was “terrified” and urged him to secure her release.

Six court sessions have been held since Griner’s trial began on July 1, and Russia has extended her detainment until mid-December.

Russian officials have expressed displeasure with the US claim that the Russian judicial system is not impartial and that Griner and Whelan are “wrongfully detained” and have pushed back against suggestions that Griner’s detention was politically motivated.

Tensions between the US and Russia, long strained, have further deteriorated since Russia launched an invasion of Ukraine in February. The US has accused Russia of war crimes, and has sought to bolster Ukraine with billions of dollars in weapons shipments and sanctions that have devastated the Russian economy.

“What the world has heard recently from Russia’s leaders is raising new alarms,” Blinken said during his remarks on Wednesday.

“Last week Foreign Minister Lavrov said that the Kremlin’s goals in Ukraine had expanded. Now they seek to claim more Ukrainian territory beyond the Donbas. This is the latest in a series of evolving justifications and ever-shifting goals.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies