By Luc Cohen
NEW YORK (Reuters) – The U.S. judge who in 2012 sentenced Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout to 25 years in prison has voiced support for a deal proposed by the United States to Russia to swap him for basketball star Brittney Griner, though a federal agent involved in the case said such a trade would “belittle the rule of law.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Friday he spoke by telephone with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and pressed the Kremlin to accept Washington’s proposal to secure the release of Griner and former Marine Paul Whelan.
A source familiar with the situation has told Reuters the United States would be willing to exchange Bout, known by some as the “Merchant of Death,” for those two Americans detained in Russia.
“We tried him, we convicted him, we gave him a very long sentence,” retired U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin, who presided over Bout’s trial and sentencing in Manhattan federal court, told Reuters on Thursday. “But now the situation has changed and this is a trade we should make.”
Scheindlin, who retired in 2019 and is now in private practice, said she likely would have given Bout a shorter sentence had there not been a mandatory minimum of 25 years. She said the risk that he will now return to arms trafficking is minimal as he likely has lost touch with his contacts during his 11 years in prison.
Robert Zachariasiewicz, a former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent who helped lead the team that arrested Bout, said the proposed deal could provide fodder to critics who argue that U.S. criminal cases against foreigners are sometimes brought for political reasons.
“We don’t conduct political cases,” Zachariasiewicz, who left the DEA in 2020, said in an interview on Thursday, adding that consideration of the swap has “completely belittled the rule of law.”
Zachariasiewicz said the exchange could also anger foreign law enforcement agencies that helped investigate Bout in part because the United States told them “he is such a bad actor.”
The United States has said Bout supplied weapons to governments in Afghanistan, Liberia, Sudan and elsewhere.
Bout was convicted for agreeing to sell weapons to U.S. informants posing as agents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Bout, arrested in a sting operation in Bangkok in 2008, is scheduled for release in 2029 from a federal prison in Marion, Illinois, according to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.
The American proposal has prompted a debate between critics of prisoner swaps – who argue they undermine due process and encourage U.S. adversaries to arrest Americans for leverage – and others who believe the United States has little to gain by keeping Bout behind bars and should do what it can to secure the release of Griner and Whelan.
Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and a star of the Women’s National Basketball Association who also played professionally in Russia, was arrested on drug charges at a Moscow airport on Feb. 17 and could face up to 10 years in prison. Whelan, who holds American, British, Canadian and Irish passports, was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in jail in Russia after being convicted of spying.
President Joe Biden’s administration in April swapped Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot convicted in the United States of drug trafficking, to secure the release of another former Marine, Trevor Reed, from Russia.
Families of U.S. citizens detained abroad are stepping up efforts to pressure Biden to conduct more prisoner swaps with foreign governments to secure the release of their loved ones.
Robert Appleton, a former federal prosecutor and U.N. investigator who previously investigated Bout but was not involved in the case leading to his arrest, said even though Bout may not return to crime if he is released, a swap would be “disproportionate.”
“He’s not the same guy and I don’t think he immediately at least could do the same kind of harm,” said Appleton, now a partner at the law firm Olshan. “But the world hasn’t seen a bigger gun smuggler than Bout.”
(Reporting by Luc Cohen in New York; Editing by Will Dunham; Editing by Will Dunham and Noeleen Walder)