Viktor Bout: who is Russia’s ‘Lord of War’ used in Brittney Griner exchange, how was he caught, and conviction

Viktor Bout has been in a US prison for the last 12 years, convicted on a series of charges - including conspiring to kill Americans.

US basketball star Brittney Griner has been freed from her detention in Russia via a prisoner swap with notorious weapons dealer Viktor Bout.

Bout, who was serving a 25-year prison sentence in the United States, was exchanged with Griner at Abu Dhabi Airport on Thursday (7 December). The Kremlin has repeatedly called for his release since his imprisonment in 2012, slamming his sentencing as “baseless and biased”.

Griner, who is now free, was arrested on drug smuggling charges at an airport near Moscow in February. The double Olympic gold medallist has played basketball for Russian side UMMC Ekaterinburg since 2014.

Despite her testimony claiming she had inadvertently packed the cannabis oil which was found in her luggage, she was sentenced to nine years in prison in August. In mid-November, after she lost her appeal, she was moved to a penal colony in Mordovia.

President Joe Biden said Griner is safe and on a plane home from the United Arab Emirates, adding she is “in good spirits” but “needs time and space to recover.” Russia’s foreign ministry has also confirmed the swap, commenting, “the Russian citizen has been returned to his homeland.”

But who exactly is Viktor Bout - the man used in the exchange with Brittney Griner? Why was he in prison in the US in the first place, how was he caught, and what was he convicted of? Here’s everything you need to know.

Viktor Bout sits inside a detention cell at Bangkok Supreme Court on July 28, 2008, in Bangkok, Thailand. Credit: Getty Images

Who is Viktor Bout?

Bout is a Russian citizen, businessman, and former Soviet military translator. But he is most known for being a notorious arms dealer, who smuggled weapons to warlords and rogue governments in Africa and the Middle East during the 1990s and early 2000s.

He therefore became one of the world’s most wanted men. He was dubbed the ‘Merchant of Death’ for gun-running in the years after the fall of the Soviet Union, and nicknamed the ’Lord Of War’ on account of the 2005 Hollywood film which was loosely based on his exploits. He is believed to be in his 50s, but his age is disputed because of his differing passports and identity documents.

Former Soviet military officer and arms trafficking suspect Viktor Bout deplanes after arriving at Westchester County Airport on November 16, 2010. Credit: Getty Images

How was he caught?

Bout eluded international arrest warrants and asset freezes for years, but was eventually brought down by an elaborate US sting operation in 2008. He was arrested in a hotel in Bangkok, Thailand, by US drug enforcement agents posing as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by the acronym FARC.

To the anger of the Russian Government, two years later, Bout was extradited to the US, where he was sentenced. He has spent the last 12 years in an American prison.

What was he convicted of?

Bout was charged with conspiring to kill Americans, acquiring and exporting anti-aircraft missiles, and providing material support to a terrorist organisation. Prosecutors honed in on Bout’s role in supplying weapons to the FARC, a guerilla group that waged an insurgency in Colombia until 2016, arguing that the weapons were intended to kill US citizens.

Preet Bharara, the US attorney in Manhattan during Bout’s sentencing in 2012, said at the time: “Viktor Bout has been international arms trafficking enemy number one for many years, arming some of the most violent conflicts around the globe. He was finally brought to justice in an American court for agreeing to provide a staggering number of military-grade weapons to an avowed terrorist organisation committed to killing Americans.”

There are other crimes that Bout has been accused of, but not charged for. Some have alleged that he trafficked military-grade weapons to conflict zones around the world using a fleet of cargo planes, fuelling conflicts in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Afghanistan. These accusations prompted US authorities to freeze his US assets in 2004 and block any transactions.

Bout has repeatedly maintained his innocence, saying he operated legitimate businesses and acted as a mere logistics provider.

Viktor Bout was returned to Russia in a prisoner exchange with US basketball star Brittney Griner. Credit: Getty Images

What has been said about his return to Russia?

In a statement, Russia’s foreign ministry said: “For a long time, the Russian Federation has been negotiating with the United States on the release of V. A. Bout. Washington categorically refused dialogue on the inclusion of the Russian [citizen] in the exchange scheme. Nevertheless, the Russian Federation continued to actively work to rescue our compatriot.”

Bout’s US lawyer, Steve Zissou, said that Bout was with his wife and daughter. He added: “We are grateful that after 15 long years, Viktor has finally been reunited with his family.”

Who is Brittney Griner?

Brittney Griner, 32, is one of the most well-known sportswomen in America. She flew to Moscow was to play basketball in Russia during the off-season in the US.

President Biden has commented on her release, posting a picture on Twitter alongside Griner’s wife Cherelle with the caption: “Moments ago I spoke to Brittney Griner. She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home.”

It was hoped that she may be returned alongside Paul Whelan, another US citizen who is currently detained in Russia. Whelan was arrested on alleged espionage charges, which he denied, in 2018, and sentenced to 16-years in prison in a trial that US officials have called unfair.

The US had reportedly discussed bringing both Griner and Whelan home at the same time in exchange for Bout, but President Biden said that Russia had treated Whelan’s case differently from Griner’s for totally “illegitimate” reasons. He commented: “While we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release we have not given up; we will not give up.”

Paul Whelan, a former US Marine accused of spying and arrested in Russia stands inside a defendant’s cage during a hearing at a court in Moscow on August 23, 2019. Credit: Getty Images

Whelan’s family praised Griner’s release from Russia, with his twin brother Paul telling ABC: “I am so glad that Brittney Griner is on her way home. As the family member of a Russian hostage, I can literally only imagine the joy she will have, reunited with her loved ones and in time for the holidays. There is no greater success than for a wrongful detainee to be free and for them to go home.”

But, he also admitted that Whelan not being brought home was a “catastrophe” and urged the US government to be more “assertive” and “direct” in their attempts to get his brother back in the US.