Brittney Griner, Paul Whelan trade must ‘cross the line’, even at the expense of ‘Merchant of Death’: experts

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The US must try to complete the exchange for detainees Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan after a grueling and lengthy process, even at the cost of trading a dangerous arms dealer to secure their release, experts say.

“It’s torture,” former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Joel Rubin told TSWT News Digital. “So just get to the point where it’s almost done — you don’t mess with it too much. If you think you can get there and get the people out, you take it.”

Griner, who pleaded guilty to drug possession on July 7, has been held in Russia since February after Russian authorities said they found vaping cartridges containing hash oil in her luggage.

The guilty plea doesn’t end the case, but some have suggested it could speed up the process, along with Griner’s release from prison. She could be considered for a prisoner swap between Moscow and Washington, DC, and last week the Biden administration made a “substantial proposal” to “facilitate” the release of Griner and Whelan.

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One of the names mentioned is Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer known as the “Merchant of Death” who is serving a 25-year prison sentence in the US after being convicted of conspiracy to murder US citizens and aid a terrorist organization.

WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner is escorted into a courtroom for a hearing, in Khimki, just outside Moscow, Russia, July 27, 2022.
(Evgenia Novozhenina/Pool photo via TSWT)

Experts have warned about a deal, including Bout, about the potential impact on American travelers, but an expert on detainee negotiations rejected such arguments.

“There is no historical evidence to support the claim that a no-commitment policy reduces kidnappings,” Mickey Bergman, vice president of the Richardson Center for Global Engagement, told TSWT News Digital. Arguments to the contrary are intellectually lazy and morally bankrupt: intellectually lazy, because data shows no correlation between the way these cases are solved and the number of cases that follow; morally bankrupt, because the government’s attempts to stop taking Americans discouraging and deterring cannot be done on the backs of those already imprisoned.”

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“The ‘deals’ do not create or destroy deterrence,” he added. “Evidence shows that deterrence is derived from the measures taken by governments after the return of the detainees.”

Rubin, who has served in both the Bush and Obama administrations, described how the US can continue to track and follow Bout after his release, finding ways to “limit future damage” if he returns to Russia.

Viktor Bout walks past temporary cells ahead of a Bangkok hearing on August 20, 2010.

Viktor Bout walks past temporary cells ahead of a Bangkok hearing on August 20, 2010.
(Christophe Archambault/TSWT via Getty Images)

“If a judgment is passed…we can track down this man and make sure he never returns to his illicit ways — meaning he will remain sanctioned,” explained Rubin, arguing that Bout would be “restless.” “. [to] back to work.”

“He’s not running away,” he continued. “There may be ways to mitigate future damage.”

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Rubin called Griner’s imprisonment and trial a “terrible situation” that Russia has repeatedly used for propaganda. He acknowledged that Griner had traveled to Russia despite US warnings to the contrary — something the State Department is doing “to avoid what we are in now.”

“Basically, our main duty is to take care of the Americans, so here we are,” Rubin said. “Viktor Bout has served a lot of time, but he is a criminal – an arms dealer – and has blood on his hands…and [he’s] high value for the Russians”, adding that Russia could call it a “symbolic coup” to gain its freedom.

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“At the same time, Russia is benefiting from Brittney Griner, [her] celebrity in particular, to try to use her as a propaganda tool and embarrass the United States,” he explained. “But in the end it’s about taking care of our people.”

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