MOSCOW (AP) – A show of prison artwork by Viktor Bout, the Russian arms trader serving 25 years in the United States (US) and the focus of speculation about a prisoner swap that could free WNBA star Brittney Griner, opened on 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 characterised 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 USD20 million in weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, to shoot down US helicopters.
The Associated Press and other news organisations 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 US State Department has declared Griner to be “wrongfully detained”.
As a two-time Olympic gold medallist and star for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, Griner is one of the most prominent US female athletes and her case has put significant pressure on the White House to obtain her release.
US 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 US 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.