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Outrage after US delivers 'Merchant of Death' Viktor Bout to Russia to free basketball star Brittney Griner

The US and Russia have exchanged jailed US basketball star Brittney Griner for notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout, held in an American prison for 12 years.

Outrage after US delivers 'Merchant of Death' Viktor Bout to Russia to free basketball star Brittney Griner and not paul whelan snt
First Published Dec 8, 2022, 9:36 PM IST

Brittney Griner, an imprisoned American basketball player, was traded to Russia for notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout, who had been detained in an American jail for 12 years. US President Joe Biden said Griner is safe and returning home from the United Arab Emirates on a plane.

"I'm glad to say Brittney's in good spirits... she needs time and space to recover," he said at the White House.

Griner was detained in February at a Moscow airport for having cannabis oil, and she was transferred to a prison camp last month. Knowing that Moscow had long demanded Bout's release, the Biden administration proposed a prisoner exchange last July.

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The swap was confirmed by Russia's foreign ministry, adding that it happened at the Abu Dhabi airport. Although he was not yet believed to have reached Russian territory, it announced in a statement that "the Russian citizen has been returned to his homeland."

Speaking in the Oval Office, Griner's wife, Cherelle praised the efforts of the Biden administration in securing her release: "I'm just standing here overwhelmed with emotions." She added that the ordeal had been one of her life's darkest moments.

Outrage after US delivers 'Merchant of Death' Viktor Bout to Russia to free basketball star Brittney Griner and not paul whelan snt

UAE President and Saudi Crown Prince led negotiations

According to a joint Saudi-UAE statement, UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had taken the lead in the mediation efforts.

The Saudi heir to the throne enjoys good ties with Vladimir Putin of Russia. In September, he assisted in organising a complicated exchange of hundreds of prisoners held by Russia and Ukraine.

The US made it plain that ex-marine Paul Whelan should be included in a trade when talks to obtain Griner's release during the summer began. The hopes of Whelan's family were dashed when it became evident that the Russian swap would not include Whelan, who had been imprisoned in 2018 on accusations of spying.

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Finally, in a straight trade for Griner, President Biden issued the decree shortening Bout's 25-year prison sentence and releasing him.

Viktor Bout became one of the most sought persons in the world after providing weapons to warlords and unsavoury governments. The 2005 Hollywood film Lord of War, largely based on his life, was inspired by the activities of the Russian, who was known as the "merchant of death" for smuggling guns in the years following the fall of the Soviet Union.

Outrage after US delivers 'Merchant of Death' Viktor Bout to Russia to free basketball star Brittney Griner and not paul whelan snt

An intricate US sting operation that year resulted in his arrest at a hotel in Thailand's capital city of Bangkok, angering the Russian government and putting an end to his undercover career.

After being sent to the United States two years later, he has been imprisoned there for the past 12 years for planning to support terrorists and kill Americans. Bout's situation is very different from that of his counterpart in the prisoner swap.

Brittney Griner, 32, is one of the best-known sportswomen in America. During the US basketball season, the double Olympic champion is a star centre for Phoenix Mercury in the WNBA. Her sole purpose in travelling to Moscow was to play during the US off-season in Russia. She claimed during her Russian trial that the marijuana oil discovered in her bag was an "honest mistake."

In his tweet, President Biden posted a picture from the Oval Office alongside Griner's wife, Cherelle. "Moments ago, I spoke to Brittney Griner. She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home," he wrote. 

In particular, Griner's travelling companion from the UAE, presidential envoy Roger Carstens, was praised by Secretary of State Antony Blinken for his efforts. Leading US figures hailed her release, including two-time WNBA champion Breanna Stewart of the Seattle Storm.

What about Paul Whelan?

Last month, Griner was transferred to a penal colony in Mordovia, a remote region located 500 kilometres (310 miles) southeast of Moscow. She had been kept close to the prison where Paul Whelan, who denies the charges against him for spying, is serving a 16-year sentence.

Outrage after US delivers 'Merchant of Death' Viktor Bout to Russia to free basketball star Brittney Griner and not paul whelan snt

In his statement, President Biden said Russia had treated Whelan's case differently from Griner's for illegitimate reasons. "While we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul's release, we have not given up; we will not give up," he vowed.

Paul Whelan was not included in the exchange, according to US officials, who had previously informed the family, according to Whelan's brother David, who applauded Griner's release.

"It's clear the US government needs to be more assertive," he said in a statement. "If bad actors like Russia are going to grab innocent Americans, the US needs a swifter, more direct response."

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However, an outrage has ensued on Twitter, with several Americans questioning the Biden administration for not pushing for Whelan's release.

"Brittney Griner has shown us one thing: An America hating, useless basketball player is far more important to the Biden administration than a retired marine," noted one user on the micro-blogging site.

Another user added, "Dear Brittney Griner, I hope you now appreciate the country that traded you for a terrorist and chose you over a marine."

Here's a look at some of the reactions:

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