Pentagon admits concern ‘Merchant of Death’ Viktor Bout will return to arms dealing after Brittney Griner swap

‘This should be a moment of deep reflection for the United States government to recognise we have a serious problem with hostage-taking of Americans,’ Senator Bob Menendez said

Bevan Hurley
Friday 09 December 2022 15:26 GMT
Brittney Griner: Footage released of prisoner exchange in Abu Dhabi

A senior Pentagon official has expressed concern that freed Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout will return to trafficking weapons.

Bout, dubbed the “Merchant of Death”, was released from US custody midway through a 25-year prison sentence in a prisoner swap for WNBA player Brittney Griner on Thursday.

“I think there is a concern that he would return to doing the same kind of work that he’s done in the past,” an unnamed Defense Department official told Politico.

Bout was convicted of conspiring to kill US citizens and aiding a terrorist organisation in 2011.

US authorities said he had spent decades selling arms to rogue leaders, fuelling civil wars and aiding Russia’s shadowy involvement in conflict zones.

Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said it had been a “hard call” that was ultimately made by President Joe Biden in an interview with CBS News.

“Viktor Bout’s been off the playing field since 2008, which is a very good thing, and he served about half of his sentence,” Mr Blinken told CBS News.

“At some point, in the years to come, he was going to get out. And I’m glad at least that we were able to get Brittney Griner home.”

Viktor Bout was arrested in Thailand in 2008 (AP)

Ms Griner’s release was met with widespread praise, however some lawmakers criticised the prisoner swap for setting a dangerous precedent.

“This should be a moment of deep reflection for the United States government to recognise we have a serious problem with hostage-taking of Americans,” Senator Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations committee, said in a statement.

“We must stop inviting dictatorial and rogue regimes to use Americans overseas as bargaining chips, and we must try do better at encouraging American citizens against traveling to places like Russia where they are primary targets for this type of unlawful detention.” 

After serving in the Russian military, Bout launched cargo airline Air Cess in the mid-1990s.

He became one of the most prolific arms dealers in the world over the next two decades, often selling weapons to both sides in civil wars from Afghanistan to Liberia, according to the Department of Justice.

He was arrested in Thailand in 2008 after being recorded offering to sell weapons to US agents posing as terrorists in a sting operation.

Ms Griner was arrested in a Moscow airport in February while in possession of less than one gram of cannabis oil.

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