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Who is Viktor Bout? The Russian arms dealer swapped in exchange for Brittney Griner’s release

Brittney Griner gained her freedom from a Russian detention center in a one-for-one prisoner swap for Viktor Bout, also known as “the Merchant of Death.”

Viktor Bout, “the Merchant of Death”

The Biden administration reached a deal with the Kremlin to secure the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner on Thursday but it came at a high cost. In order to bring home the highest profile American detained in Russia, the US released Viktor Bout.

Also know as “the Merchant of Death,” Bout was a notorious arms dealer who had eluded capture for years until he was arrested in Thailand in 2008. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison after being convicted of intending to sell weapons to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by the acronym FARC, that could have been used to kill Americans.

Who is Viktor Bout?

The “international arms trafficking enemy number one,” as the former US attorney in Manhattan Preet Bharara called him, was originally from Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. After serving in the Soviet Army he attended the Military Institute of Foreign Languages in Moscow, a feeder school for the Russia’s military intelligence agency.

When the Soviet Union broke up, he started a cargo shipping company in the United Arab Emirates. His business grew to include a fleet of 60 planes that authorities say he used to ship military-grade weapons around the world beginning in the 1990s. His clients are said to have included rebels, militants and terrorists such as Al Qaeda and the Taliban, as well as the governments fighting them.

He was the inspiration for Nicolas Cage’s character in the 2005 movie ‘Lord of War’.

How was “the Merchant of Death” captured?

Bout’s exploits first popped up on the international radar in the mid-1990s when the United Nations began investigating him. The United States also got involved freezing his US assets in 2004. However, his strategy of continually switching locations and re-registering his cargo planes made it difficult for authorities to bring charges against him.

He was finally arrested in 2008 during a Drug Enforcement Administration sting operation in Bangkok, Thailand. Undercover agents posing as FARC representatives intending to buy weapons including anti-aircraft which they told him could be used to kill American pilots. He responded that he and the rebel group, which was considered a terrorist organization up until last year, had “the same enemy.”

He was arrested by Thai police on the spot and held in their custody until he was extradited to the US in 2010. He was found guilty the following year and later sentenced to 25 years behind bars on four counts. Bout has always maintained his innocence and the Kremlin has been repeatedly tried to secure his release.

The US could only get a one-for-one swap

The former Soviet military officer was exchanged for Griner at the Abu Dhabi Airport on Thursday. Russia had made it clear that that was the only path to her freedom. However, the White House was unable to also secure the release of Paul Whelan who has been jailed in Russia since 2018.

The Michigan corporate security executive was convicted of espionage which both his family and the US government say are baseless charges. In a statement, Paul’s twin brother David said he was “so glad” that Griner was released. And while disappointed that the White House once again could not get his brother released, thanked the Biden administration for giving his family advance warning.

“The Biden Administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen,” David said. “I think it’s clear that the US government has no concessions that the Russian government will take for Paul.”