Who is the 'Merchant of Death'? Russian prisoner freed in swap for Brittney Griner

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By VT

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The US and Russia have agreed to a deal that has seen jailed basketball star Brittney Griner released in exchange for Viktor Bout, a notorious arms dealer nicknamed “The Merchant of Death.”

Following headlines regarding Griner's Russian imprisonment over the last year, many of us are familiar with her story. But who is Viktor Bout?

Well, Bout has been accused of selling arms to warlords and rogue governments throughout the world following the collapse of the Soviet Union, becoming one of the world’s most wanted men in the 90s, The New York Times reports.

The convicted gun smuggler earned worldwide notoriety and was even portrayed by Nicholas Cage in Lord of War, a 2005 movie loosely based on his life.

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Credit: Zuma Press / Alamy

But his shadowy career was brought to an end by an elaborate sting operation in 2008, when he was arrested by US agents at a hotel Bangkok, much to the fury of the Russian government.

DEA agents met with Bout while posing as officials from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a militant group classified as narco-terrorists by the US government.

During the meeting, prosecutors claimed Bout was prepared to provide the group with $20 million worth of weaponry, which was described as "a breathtaking arsenal of weapons — including hundreds of surface-to-air missiles, machine guns and sniper rifles — 10 million rounds of ammunition and five tons of plastic explosives."

He was eventually convicted in 2011 and sentenced to 25 years in jail for conspiracy to kill Americans, conspiracy to deliver anti-aircraft missiles, and aiding a terrorist organization.

Throughout it all Bout has consistently maintained his innocence and claims he is a “legitimate businessman,” and Kremlin officials who viewed him as a “high-value asset” saw the Griner deal as a chance to recover the Merchant of Death.

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Suspected Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout sits in a holding cell after arriving at the Criminal Court in Bangkok in 2008. Credit: REUTERS / Alamy

Former DEA official Rebekah Koffler says Moscow “wants him back because he possesses critical insights that he can share with the GRU, his former agency,” reports Fox News. “Having been in a U.S. prison and interrogated by U.S. officials, he knows what our intelligence requirements are and other information that is valuable for the Russians."

Griner meanwhile was arrested at a Russian airport in mid-February after police said they found cannabis oil in her bags.

The WNBA star pleaded guilty to smuggling charges despite insisting she had made an “honest mistake” and was sent to a remote penal colony in Mordovia, a remote area southeast of Moscow.

The prisoner swap involved both parties meeting at a private airport in Abu Dhabi, where they exchanged captives before flying them home.

"In the middle of the night they simply woke me up and said 'Get your things together' and that was it," Bout said in brief remarks made to a Russian reporter shortly after landing in Moscow.

The “Merchant” reportedly came down the airplane steps carrying a bouquet of flowers before embracing his mother and his wife.

Featured image credit: Zuma Press / Alamy

Who is the 'Merchant of Death'? Russian prisoner freed in swap for Brittney Griner

vt-author-image

By VT

Article saved!Article saved!

The US and Russia have agreed to a deal that has seen jailed basketball star Brittney Griner released in exchange for Viktor Bout, a notorious arms dealer nicknamed “The Merchant of Death.”

Following headlines regarding Griner's Russian imprisonment over the last year, many of us are familiar with her story. But who is Viktor Bout?

Well, Bout has been accused of selling arms to warlords and rogue governments throughout the world following the collapse of the Soviet Union, becoming one of the world’s most wanted men in the 90s, The New York Times reports.

The convicted gun smuggler earned worldwide notoriety and was even portrayed by Nicholas Cage in Lord of War, a 2005 movie loosely based on his life.

size-large wp-image-1263183072
Credit: Zuma Press / Alamy

But his shadowy career was brought to an end by an elaborate sting operation in 2008, when he was arrested by US agents at a hotel Bangkok, much to the fury of the Russian government.

DEA agents met with Bout while posing as officials from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a militant group classified as narco-terrorists by the US government.

During the meeting, prosecutors claimed Bout was prepared to provide the group with $20 million worth of weaponry, which was described as "a breathtaking arsenal of weapons — including hundreds of surface-to-air missiles, machine guns and sniper rifles — 10 million rounds of ammunition and five tons of plastic explosives."

He was eventually convicted in 2011 and sentenced to 25 years in jail for conspiracy to kill Americans, conspiracy to deliver anti-aircraft missiles, and aiding a terrorist organization.

Throughout it all Bout has consistently maintained his innocence and claims he is a “legitimate businessman,” and Kremlin officials who viewed him as a “high-value asset” saw the Griner deal as a chance to recover the Merchant of Death.

size-large wp-image-1263183069
Suspected Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout sits in a holding cell after arriving at the Criminal Court in Bangkok in 2008. Credit: REUTERS / Alamy

Former DEA official Rebekah Koffler says Moscow “wants him back because he possesses critical insights that he can share with the GRU, his former agency,” reports Fox News. “Having been in a U.S. prison and interrogated by U.S. officials, he knows what our intelligence requirements are and other information that is valuable for the Russians."

Griner meanwhile was arrested at a Russian airport in mid-February after police said they found cannabis oil in her bags.

The WNBA star pleaded guilty to smuggling charges despite insisting she had made an “honest mistake” and was sent to a remote penal colony in Mordovia, a remote area southeast of Moscow.

The prisoner swap involved both parties meeting at a private airport in Abu Dhabi, where they exchanged captives before flying them home.

"In the middle of the night they simply woke me up and said 'Get your things together' and that was it," Bout said in brief remarks made to a Russian reporter shortly after landing in Moscow.

The “Merchant” reportedly came down the airplane steps carrying a bouquet of flowers before embracing his mother and his wife.

Featured image credit: Zuma Press / Alamy