Russians mock America for swapping ‘Merchant of Death’ arms dealer Viktor Bout for Brittney Griner – with freed spy Maria Butina crowing ‘we made them an offer they couldn’t refuse’
- Pro-Putin MP Maria Butina taunted the US for releasing Viktor Bout on Thursday
- She said swap of Bout for WNBA star Brittney Griner proved Russia’s ‘strength’
- Bout is widely hailed in Russia as an unjustly prosecuted businessman
- Prior to release, he served 11 years of a 25-year sentence for terrorism charges
Vladimir Putin’s top allies in Russia are mocking America over the recent prisoner swap that saw the US release convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout in exchange for WNBA star Brittney Griner, claiming that Russia got the better end of the deal.
Maria Butina, the pro-Putin MP elected to Russia’s Duma after serving a US prison sentence for acting as an unregistered foreign agent, led the charge in taunting the US over Thursday’s exchange.
‘The fact that Russia pushed through the exchange of Bout, whom America fundamentally did not want to give away for many years, right now means that, like in The Godfather, we “made them an offer that cannot be refused,”‘ Butina boasted in Russian on her Telegram channel.
‘This is a position of strength, comrades,’ added Butina, who was deported back to Russia in 2019 after serving an 18-month sentence in the US.
On Thursday, the US and Russia announced that Griner, who was sentenced to nine years of hard prison time on cannabis-related charges, had been exchanged for Bout.
Maria Butina (left), the pro-Putin MP in Russia’s Duma, led the charge in taunting the US for releasing Viktor Bout (right on Thursday) in exchange for WBNA star Brittney Griner
Butina, who was deported back to Russia in 2019 after serving an 18-month sentence in the US, boasted on her Telegram channel about the trade
The swap took place in Abu Dhabi, and Russian TV showed Bout in a private jet on the flight to Russia, getting his blood pressure checked, speaking with his family by phone and saying, ‘I love you very much.’
Bout’s mother, Raisa, thanked President Vladimir Putin and the Foreign Ministry for freeing her son, Tass reported. It added that he would be invited to speak to lawmakers on the Duma’s International Affairs committee.
On Channel One Russia, the state-run news outlet widely watched in Russia, an announcer hailed Bout as a ‘legendary figure’ who had suffered ‘persecution’ and ‘illegal extradition to the United States’.
Online comments from Russian-speakers also tended to celebrate Bout’s release, with some hailing him as a ‘hero’.
‘Finally. He’s been sitting in jail for years. Freedom,’ wrote one commenter on YouTube.
‘Finally the family will be reunited. Congratulations for the return of Viktor. I wrote him a letter in America with words of support. I’m very glad this part of history is over,’ another wrote.
Griner is seen on her way to being swapped in the prisoner trade in Abu Dhabi
‘Finally. He’s been sitting in jail for years. Freedom,’ wrote one commenter on YouTube
‘This is such a big win for America, but at the same time a huge fail. Trading a figure like Bout for a basketball player…’ read a comment on a sports news site
‘Finally the family will be reunited. Congratulations for the return of Viktor. I wrote him a letter in America with words of support. I’m very glad this part of history is over.’
‘He is a Russian hero’ one comment read.
‘This is such a big win for America, but at the same time a huge fail. Trading a figure like Bout for a basketball player…’ read a comment on a sports news site.
Other Russian-language comments were skeptical of the deal, and slammed Russia for imprisoning Griner.
‘What shame and embarrassment! They took an innocent person hostage, blamed her for something, the devils, just to trade in for a criminal!’ one read on YouTube.
‘Happy for Griner. But this creates an unpleasant precedent in the sense that it is already dangerous for any US citizen to visit Russia. They can make up any nonsense to keep them there,’ another person wrote.
Bout is widely known abroad as the ‘Merchant of Death’ international arms dealer who fueled some of the world’s worst conflicts.
The 2005 Nicolas Cage movie ‘Lord of War’ was loosely based on Bout, a former Soviet air force officer who gained fame supposedly by supplying weapons for civil wars in South America, the Middle East and Africa.
His clients were said to include Liberia’s Charles Taylor, longtime Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and both sides in Angola’s civil war.
In Russia, Bout is seen as a swashbuckling businessman who was unjustly imprisoned after an overly aggressive US sting operation
Russian TV showed Bout in a private jet on the flight to Russia, getting his blood pressure checked, speaking with his family by phone and saying, ‘I love you very much.’
‘What shame and embarrassment! They took an innocent person hostage, blamed her for something, the devils, just to trade in for a criminal!’ one read on YouTube
‘Happy for Griner. But this creates an unpleasant precedent in the sense that it is already dangerous for any US citizen to visit Russia. They can make up any nonsense to keep them there,’ another person wrote
In Russia, however, he’s seen as a swashbuckling businessman who was unjustly imprisoned after an overly aggressive US sting operation.
Russia had pressed for Bout´s release for years and as speculation grew about such a deal, the upper house of parliament opened a display of paintings he made in prison – whose subjects ranged from Soviet dictator Josef Stalin to a kitten.
The show of his art underlined Bout’s complexities. Though in a bloody business, the 55-year-old was a vegetarian and classical music fan who is said to speak six languages.
Even the former federal judge who sentenced him in 2011 thought his 11 years behind bars was adequate punishment.
‘He´s done enough time for what he did in this case,’ Shira A. Scheindlin told The Associated Press in July as prospects for his release appeared to rise.
Griner, who was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February after vape canisters containing cannabis oil were found in her luggage, was sentenced in August to nine years in prison.
Washington protested her sentence as disproportionate, and some observers suggested that trading an arms merchant for someone jailed for a small amount of drugs would be a poor deal.
Bout was convicted in 2011 on terrorism charges. Prosecutors said he was ready to sell up to $20 million in weapons, including surface-to-air missiles to shoot down U.S. helicopters. When they made the claim at his 2012 sentencing, Bout shouted: ‘It’s a lie!’
Alleged Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout looks out from inside the detention center while waiting for a hearing on extradition at criminal court on May 19, 2009 in Bangkok, Thailand
Bout has steadfastly proclaimed his innocence, describing himself as a legitimate businessman who didn´t sell weapons.
Bout’s case fit well into Moscow’s narrative that Washington sought to trap and oppress innocent Russians on flimsy grounds.
‘From the resonant Bout case, a real `hunt´ by Americans for Russian citizens around the world has unfolded,’ the government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta wrote last year.
Increasingly, Russia cited his case as a human rights issue. His wife and lawyer claimed his health deteriorated in the harsh prison environment where foreigners are not always eligible for breaks that Americans might receive.
Bout had not been scheduled to be released until 2029. He was held in a medium-security facility in Marion, Illinois.
‘He got a hard deal,’ said Scheindlin, the retired judge, noting the U.S. sting operatives ‘put words in his mouth’ so he’d say he was aware Americans could die from weapons he sold in order to require a terrorism enhancement that would force a long prison sentence, if not a life term.
Scheindlin gave Bout the mandatory minimum 25-year sentence but said she did so only because it was required.
Viktor Bout is escorted by members of a special police unit after a hearing at a criminal court in Bangkok October 5, 2010
At the time, his defense lawyer claimed the U.S. targeted Bout vindictively because it was embarrassed that his companies helped deliver goods to American military contractors involved in the war in Iraq.
The deliveries occurred despite United Nations sanctions imposed against Bout since 2001 because of his reputation as a notorious illegal arms dealer.
Prosecutors had urged Scheindlin to impose a life sentence, saying that if Bout was right to call himself nothing more than a businessman, ‘he was a businessman of the most dangerous order.’
Bout was estimated to be worth about $6 billion in March 2008 when he was arrested in Bangkok, Thailand.
U.S. authorities tricked him into leaving Russia for what he thought was a meeting over a business deal to ship what prosecutors 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 taken into custody at a Bangkok luxury hotel after conversations with the Drug Enforcement Administration sting operation´s informants who posed as officials of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, also known as the FARC. The group had been classified by Washington as a narco-terrorist group.
He was brought to the U.S. in November 2010.
The ‘Merchant of Death’ moniker was attached to Bout by a high-ranking minister of Britain´s Foreign Office. The nickname was included in the U.S. government´s indictment of Bout.
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