Prison exchanges and swaps are never entirely satisfactory affairs. The appropriate measure in such cases is the degree of dissatisfaction that arises from them. In the instance of the exchange of US basketballer Brittney Griner for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, the Russian negotiators may well count themselves richer in the bargain.
Griner, a two-time Olympic champion, was detained in February this year at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport possessing cartridges for vapes with hashish oil. Her argument was that these had been prescribed. The court was not convinced, sentencing her to a brutal nine-year prison sentence for drug smuggling.
Bout, invested with Satanic-like qualities of influence by US authorities and Hollywood, where his role is given a celluloid form by Nicolas Cage, was convicted in 2011 on four charges that included conspiring to kill US citizens.
He was arrested three years prior in Bangkok after attempting to sell surface-to-air missiles to members of the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) posing as arms buyers for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. This very fact gave Bout cause for consternation and suspicion: the sting operation, the smell of politics. For his part, it was all business.
More popularly, he was accused of something other powers and entities have done repeatedly since decolonisation: spread the murderous joy of armaments across the African continent through the 1990s and early 2000s. Throw in claims by US authorities that he was a former officer of the Russian military intelligence directorate, the GRU, and we have a character with form.
Bout’s ventures were more complicated than merely shipping weapons. In the 1990s, he launched his own air-freight company Air Cess, acquired a fleet of military aircraft, and shipped televisions, air-conditioners, furniture, textiles, electronics and weapons to a number of countries in conflict from his operating base in Sharjah. He was positively catholic in acquiring his clients: from officials in Washington to war criminals such as Liberia’s Charles Taylor.
The prospects for seeking an exchange involving Bout were already circulating in July, when it was reported that he might be exchanged for Paul Whelan, serving a 16-year sentence in Russia on espionage charges, along with Griner. Even the original sentencing justice, District Judge Shira Scheindlin, argued that “the situation has changed and this is a trade we should make.” Bout had most likely lost his place in the pecking order of arms trafficking.
Former chief of operations at the DEA, Michael Braun, expressed his alarm at the very idea. “Before going through this trade, it would behoove US President Joe Biden to remember just how dangerous Bout was – and how much damage his release could do to US national security.”
The Russian negotiators, refusing a job lot offer, drew the line at Whelan, leaving the Biden administration to accept the return of Griner while raising questions about the currency of such exchanges.
The air of disagreement from the smokestacks of commentary in the US was certainly palpable. But Griner’s return came to be seen as morally necessary, given, as a CNN report put it, her sentence “to a Russian penal colony for possession of a single gram of cannabis oil.” Bout’s release became a justifiable move because of Griner’s “blatant seizure as a geopolitical pawn on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine”.
Russian human rights lawyer Arseny Levinson also thought the sentence political in nature. “She should not have been sentenced to a real prison term at all. Moreover, such a severe punishment should not have been imposed, it was motivated solely by raising the stakes in the exchange, making a mockery out of the hostage.”
The Griner-Bout exchange has thrown up an unwelcome mirror for the Biden administration. The failure to secure Whelan’s release led former President Donald Trump to fume at “a ‘stupid’ and unpatriotic embarrassment for the USA,” while House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) called it a “gift to Vladimir Putin” and imperilling to “American lives.”
US Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) argued that the trade gave another reason to “impeach” the President. Biden “traded Russian terrorist arms dealer, Viktor Bout, left a US Marine in a Russian jail, and brought home a professional basketball player.”
The sentiment was echoed in gloating fashion by RT editor Margarita Simonyan, who thought Whelan a “hero spy” as opposed to Griner, a “drug-addicted black lesbian who suffered for vaping hashish”.
Then came that rather uncomfortable fact that marijuana, while legal in 21 US states, has also seen prisoners serve life sentences for possessing small amounts of the drug. Neuroscientist and drug reform advocate Dr Carl Hart celebrated Griner’s release, but suggested the need to do more: “Now let’s free all drug war political prisoners.”
Being righteous over the release of Bout is an easy thing. The arms-trade has a far more obvious lethality to it than drugs or the pet obsession of wealthy countries with “people smuggling”. But that ignores the muddy picture of deals, collaborative alliances and understandings known as the international arms market.
Singling out Bout as the cartoonish gangster who endangered US lives ignores the fact that the United States remains the world’s biggest arms exporter, thereby endangering the lives of citizens across the globe. Between 2017 and 2021, the US accounted for 39 percent of the major arms transfers globally. This was twice that of Russia, and almost 10 times what China sent its customers.
Another excruciating point is that one can only become a merchant of death if the merchandise, and the interest in buying and using it, is there. As Bout himself put it, if you were going to prosecute a figure such as himself, you might as well prosecute US arms dealers whose weapons eventually end up being used against US citizens. (The National Rifle Association, take note.) “They are involved even more than me!”
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