MOSCOW (AP): A show of prison artwork by Viktor Bout, the Russian arms trader serving 25 years in the United States and the focus of speculation about a prisoner swap that could free WNBA star Brittney Griner, opened Tuesday at the upper chamber of the Russian parliament.
The exhibition at the Federation Council underlines Russia’s strong interest in the release of Bout, whom Russian officials say is an “entrepreneur” who was unjustly arrested and sentenced to 25 years but who is characterized abroad as the ruthless “Merchant of Death.”
Russia has agitated for his release since he was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and later convicted of terrorism for allegedly trying to sell up to $20 million in weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, to shoot down U.S. helicopters.
The Associated Press and other news organizations have reported that Washington has offered to exchange Bout for Griner, who was sentenced in August to nine years in prison after vape cartridges containing cannabis oil were found in her luggage at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February.
The U.S. State Department has declared Griner to be “wrongfully detained.” As a two-time Olympic gold medalist and star for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, Griner is one of the most prominent U.S. female athletes and her case has put significant pressure on the White House to obtain her release.
U.S. President Joe Biden said last week that he hopes Russian President Vladimir Putin will be more willing to negotiate the release of Griner now that the U.S. midterm elections have been held.
He spoke hours after Griner’s lawyers revealed that she had been sent to one of Russia’s notoriously harsh penal colonies to serve her sentence following a court’s rejection of her appeal. Griner claims she used the vape cartridges for pain treatment and that they were only inadvertently in her luggage due to hasty packing for the trip to Russia, where she played for a Yekaterinburg team in the offseason.
There has been no obvious progress in negotiations, which Russian officials have insisted must remain out of the public eye. Washington reportedly is also seeking the release of former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan who is serving a 16-year espionage sentence.
At the art show, whose works included a technically adept portrait of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and a sentimental portrayal of a kitten, the head of the upper chamber’s international relations committee, Grigory Karasin, vowed that “Russian diplomats will do everything so that he returns to his homeland as soon as possible. This is not an easy task, but we will continue our efforts.”
Bout’s wife, Alla, said at the show that she hadn’t discussed with her husband whether to apply for a presidential pardon, but that all avenues for appealing his sentence have been used up.