Russia signals openness to prisoner swap with US

Deputy foreign minister says convicted Russian arms deal Viktor Bout is among those being discussed in potential swap.

Russia has signalled it is open to a prisoner swap with the United States, one that would see convicted Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout freed, as the Biden administration continues to seek the release of jailed US basketball star Brittney Griner.

“I want to hope that the prospect [of an exchange] not only remains but is being strengthened, and that the moment will come when we will get a concrete agreement,” Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Ryabkov was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency on Friday.

“The Americans are showing some external activity. We are working professionally through a special channel designed for this,” Ryabkov said. “Viktor Bout is among those who are being discussed, and we certainly count on a positive result.”

Once dubbed the “Merchant of Death”, Bout was one of the world’s most wanted men prior to his 2008 arrest on charges related to arms trafficking. He is currently serving a 25-year sentence in US prison.

Griner was sentenced to nine years in prison in August after Russian authorities said they found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage [File: Evgenia Novozhenina/Pool via AP Photo]

Ryabkov’s remarks on Friday contrast with previous statements from Moscow that cautioned Washington against trying to engage in public diplomacy over Griner’s case or any potential prisoner swap.

Hours earlier, Griner’s lawyers confirmed that the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) star had been moved to Female Penal Colony IK-2 in the town of Yavas, approximately 500km (300 miles) southeast of Moscow, to serve a nine-year sentence for drug possession.

Griner was arrested at an airport in Moscow in February after Russian authorities said they found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage. She has said that packing the cartridges was an “honest mistake”.

Russian penal colonies are known for their harsh conditions. Prisoners are placed in barracks, not individual cells, and forced to perform daily work.

“Brittney is doing as well as could be expected and trying to stay strong as she adapts to a new environment,” Griner’s lawyers, Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boikov, said in a statement on Thursday.

The two-time Olympic gold medallist’s case has drawn international attention, with her teammates, friends and relatives urging US President Joe Biden to do more to secure her release.

Griner is one of two US citizens that Washington has said are unjustly imprisoned in Russia. Paul Whelan, a US Marine veteran, was sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2020 on espionage charges.

In July, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington made a “substantial proposal” to Moscow to free the pair.

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