Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday revealed that the United States has offered Russia a prisoner swap to secure the release of two Americans being held by Moscow, the basketball player Brittney Griner and former Marine Paul Whelan, who was sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2020 on espionage charges.
Griner, one of the top stars of the WNBA professional league and a two-time Olympic gold winner, is facing a legal process that could lead to a sentence of 10 years in prison for having introduced small amounts of cannabis oil into the country. The 31-year-old athlete took the stand on Wednesday for the first time at the trial, which is being held against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine.
Blinken did not disclose who they would hand over to Russia as part of the deal, but The New York Times and CNN reported that the beneficiary would be Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who is known as “The Merchant of Death” and who inspired a 2005 film starring Nicolas Cage. Bout, 55, is currently serving a 25-year federal prison sentence in the US in connection with attempted arms sales. In 2012, he was found guilty by a federal judge of leading an international arms trafficking operation for Al Qaeda and the Taliban. He had been arrested four years earlier by agents of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), in an international hunt that ended in Thailand. The extradition process to the United States took two and a half years.
Griner’s case has gained notoriety in the US in recent weeks. The basketball player sent a letter to President Biden in early July asking him not to forget about her. He responded with another letter, which has not been made public, and a call to the athlete’s wife, Cherelle, to whom he promised that he would do everything possible to get Griner back.