Viktor Bout’s brother’s frenzied phone call defending him

Brittney Griner boards plane to US after being freed from prison

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The basketball player Brittney Griner – who has been held in a Russian prison since February – has now been released in an exchange between Russia and the US, with the infamous arms dealer, Viktor Bout, sent back to Russia as part of the deal. The 55-year-old, known as the “Merchant of Death”, had been serving a 25-year prison sentence in the US. Griner, who plays for the Phoenix Mercury of the Women’s National Basket Ball Association, had been travelling back to America from Russia when she was stopped by officials after cannabis oil was found in her luggage. 

The 32-year-old was sent to a penal colony just last month but is now on her way home with President Joe Biden announcing from the White House that she is in “good spirits” but needs the “time and space to recover”.

The Biden administration had initially requested a prisoner exchange in July, on the basis that Moscow had long sought Bout’s return. 

The former Soviet military translator – who has also been dubbed the “Lord of War” and the “Bill Gates of Arms Dealing” – was seen greeting two Russian officials in Abu Dhabi airport on Russian state media official footage, before continuing the journey to the “motherland”. 

A decade ago, Bout was sentenced to 25 years in prison by a court in New York after he was found guilty of conspiracy to kill, delivering missiles, and aiding a terrorist organisation.

During the trial, the prosecutor told the court he had agreed to sell weapons to kill Americans, at this, he yelled: “It’s a lie! God knows this truth.”

Bout’s brother, Sergei Bout has also previously sought to defend him. In unearthed reports from 2002, he said the accusation that Viktor had transported arms from the United Arab Emirates to the Taliban in order to aid Al Qaeda terrorists was “nonsense”. 

The then 41-year-old contacted the Los Angeles Times Moscow Bureau, and said: “No one is investigating him, and no one is sending any queries to any agencies about him.”

His brother compared him to a taxi driver who was being unfairly questioned over what his client had in his suitcase. He continued: “I am a taxi driver; I am a carrier. I don’t know what I carry. Maybe I carry a nuclear bomb. No one is telling me about it. [Victor] is just an ordinary carrier. There are thousands of them in the world.”

While he did not share his brother’s whereabouts at that time, he said he was “now living quite legally, residing in one country”. 

Since his conviction which the Russians condemned as “baseless and biased” in 2012, Moscow has sought his return, declaring that it would “take whatever action necessary to repatriate Viktor Bout back to his motherland by any means within international law”. 

Bout, who is thought to speak six languages, rose to fame in the Nineties following the fall of the Soviet Union but has long been shrouded in mystery with little known about his early life. 

One US Defence Department official described him to the Los Angeles Times in 2002 as the “Donald Trump of arms trafficking,” adding “he’s the biggest kid on the block.” 

Before his trial, he had multiple international arrest warrants issued against him with it being claimed he has armed the likes of Islamic State Abu Sayyaf and Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front. 

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It was not until 2008 that Bout – who was then worth $6million (£4.8million) – was finally caught out. A US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) went undercover, coaxing him to Bangkok, Thailand, for a phony business deal. He was extradited to the US two years later. 

DEA agents had pretended to be potential buyers from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, which was classed a terrorist organisation by the US and he was caught on camera attempting to sell them $20million (£16million) in weapons. 

However, Bout claimed he was a legitimate businessman with Moscow alleging that Washington was seeking to trap and oppress innocent Russians. 

Although he was not due to be released until 2029, the judge who presided over the case and dealt out the sentence, Shira Scheindlin, said she only gave him 25 years as it was mandatory, noting that he “got a hard deal” as the US agents “put words in his mouth” to say that he was aware Americans would die. 

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