The Biden administration’s efforts to obtain the release of WNBA player Brittney Griner have been linked to a proposed trade of an imprisoned Russian arms dealer, according to The New York Times.
As reported by The Dallas Express, Griner, 31, has been detained in Russia since February after she was arrested at a Moscow-area airport for allegedly carrying hashish oil in her luggage. If she is convicted, she could be facing a 10-year prison sentence.
Griner’s trial began on Friday, with Russian prosecutors calling their first witnesses. Her next court date is set for Thursday, July 7.
American efforts to return Griner to the United States have yet to garner any success. Recently, the Russian news agency TASS reported that negotiations were underway to swap Griner for 55-year-old convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout.
Bout, whose lengthy career as an arms dealer earned him the nickname the “Merchant of Death,” is currently serving a 25-year sentence in a federal prison in Illinois for conspiring to sell arms to a Colombian terrorist group known as Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC).
The so-called Merchant of Death was arrested in a Bangkok, Thailand hotel during a federal sting operation in 2008. After Bout was extradited to New York, he was convicted in 2011 of conspiring to sell weapons that would be used to kill American forces.
Since Bout’s conviction, Russia has made several attempts to free him through prisoner exchanges. All of their previous efforts have been rejected. Bout’s lawyer, Steve Zissou, told The New York Times that Bout is a very high priority for Russia.
Still, Griner’s lawyers, Alexander Boykov and Maria Blagovolina, said on Friday they were not aware of any plans to exchange Griner for a Russian prisoner held in the US.
“We have no information about it, unfortunately,” they said in a press conference.
In March, American officials were finally able to visit Griner. In addition to calling for her release, the State Department issued an official declaration in May stating that she was being unlawfully detained.
Since then, the Biden administration has been urged by Griner’s wife, Cherelle, and several different organizations to negotiate a trade for her release. However, U.S. officials have declined to comment on whether discussions are underway to exchange Bout for Griner.
One concern of the Biden administration is that making such deals would establish a precedent that could endanger more Americans in Russia by incentivizing the country to imprison more U.S. citizens abroad.
The judge who presided over Bout’s case, Shira A. Scheindlin, rejects the idea of trading the two prisoners, given the disparity between Griner’s charge and Bout’s conviction.
However, she indicated that including imprisoned U.S. Marine Paul Whelan in a deal could be more acceptable. Whelan was arrested in Russia in 2018 on espionage charges (of which his family claims he is innocent) and has remained jailed in a Russian prison.
According to Zissou, Russia will most likely wait until Griner’s trial ends before negotiating any deal.
U.S. Embassy Charge d’Affaires Elizabeth Rood attended Griner’s hearing on Friday and commented afterward, “The U.S. government, from the highest levels, is working hard to bring Brittney and all wrongfully detained U.S. nationals home.”