The US and Russia finalized a prisoner swap on Thursday, according to officials and sources familiar with the matter, in a deal that would free American basketball star Brittney Griner.
The US agreed to release notorious Russian arms dealer Victor Bout in exchange for Griner.
Al Arabiya English first learned of the deal late Wednesday but held off reporting due to the sensitivity of the case and to ensure it did not jeopardize the well-being of Griner.
Asked about the exchange, a Biden administration official told Al Arabiya English on Thursday that the US president would make remarks on the deal shortly. “She in now in the custody of US officials,” the official said.
Speaking after Griner was freed, US President Joe Biden thanked the UAE for facilitating the swap, which reportedly took place in the Gulf nation.
In a joint statement from the UAE and Saudi Arabia, the two Gulf countries announced the success of their mediation efforts that led to the prisoner exchange.
UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman led the mediation.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken also thanked “our Emirati friends, who assisted in the transfer today.”
US officials and sources familiar with the negotiations said that Russia had demanded no media leaks of the swap, or else they would call off the deal.
Russia detained Griner in February, the same month it launched its latest invasion of Ukraine.
The Russian authorities accused the basketball star of having cannabis oil in her luggage as she was preparing to board her flight. She was later sentenced to nine years in prison.
After the US ramped up sanctions and pressure on Russia in response to its war on Ukraine, Moscow refused to budge on releasing Griner.
Then the US grew frustrated and publicly announced in July that they had proposed a deal to Russia that would see Griner and another US citizen imprisoned in Russia, Paul Whelan, freed.
On Thursday, Biden and Blinken lamented their failure to secure Whelan's release alongside Griner. “Despite our ceaseless efforts, the Russian Government has not yet been willing to bring a long overdue end to his wrongful detention,” Blinken said.
The State Department also deemed Griner “wrongfully detained,” which changes how the US government deals with an American citizen detained abroad.
In this case, the special presidential envoy for Hostage Affairs then leads efforts to secure a detained citizen’s release.
Bout, who was serving a 25-year sentence in the US, had been found guilty of conspiring to kill US citizens and officers as well as conducting illegal arms deals.
Despite his claim of innocence, he was caught on camera during an arms deal with what he believed was the Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC), at the time designated as a terror group by the US. He was talking to undercover US agents during the sting operation.
Bout is dubbed the “Merchant of Death” and “the sanctions buster.”
A federal jury in 2011 found the former Soviet military translator guilty on charges including conspiracy to kill US nationals and officers and conspiring to acquire and use anti-aircraft missiles. He was sentenced in 2012 to 25 years in prison.
But the deal drew criticism from some former US officials.
“So much for longstanding policy of 0 concessions to hostage-takers,” tweeted Marshall Billingslea, the former assistant secretary of treasury for terrorist financing.
Apparently White House is right now in process of releasing the most infamous “Merchant of Death” — Viktor Bout — who was working to help terrorists kill DEA agents. Seems he will be traded for Brittney Griner.— Marshall S. Billingslea (@M_S_Billingslea) December 8, 2022
So much for longstanding policy of 0 concessions to hostage-takers.
This is at least the second prisoner exchange of the year between Washington and Moscow. Former US Marine Trevor Reed was freed from Russian detention for Russian drug dealer Konstantin Yaroshenko in April.