‘Merchant of death’: Who is Viktor Bout, the arms dealer who was swapped for Brittney Griner

The former Soviet military officer was arrested in Bangkok in 2008 and is now serving 25 years in US prison

Graeme Massie
Los Angeles
Thursday 08 December 2022 14:07 GMT
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Related video: Brittney Griner again appears in Russian court

A notorious international arms dealer, nicknamed the “Merchant of Death” and was supposedly the inspiration for a character played by Nicholas Cage in the 2005 movie Lord of War, was released from US custody on Thursday (8 December) in a prisoner exchange for WNBA star Brittney Griner.

US officials revealed that the one-for-one swap took place in the United Arab Emirates on Thursday.

Washington and Moscow had been negotiating the prisoner exchange for several weeks, before President Joe Biden gave the final sign-off over the last week.

Mr Biden celebrated the news with Ms Griner’s wife Cerelle Griner and Vice President Kamala Harris at the Oval Office.

Despite efforts to exchange both Ms Griner and US Marine Paul Whelan for Bout, Mr Whelan was not part of the swap and remains behind bars in Russia.

So who is Viktor Bout?

The former Soviet military officer was arrested in Bangkok in 2008 in a sting operation in which US officials posed as Colombian rebels. He was held in custody for two years in Thailand before being extradited to the US to go on trial.

In April 2012, a US judge sentenced him to 25 years for attempting to sell heavy weapons to the  Colombian “rebels.”

“It’s a lie,” he shouted as Judge Shira Scheindlin sentenced him to prison and ordered him to forfeit $15m.

US WNBA basketball superstar Brittney Griner sits inside a defendants' cage before a hearing at the Khimki Court, outside Moscow on July 27, 2022
US WNBA basketball superstar Brittney Griner sits inside a defendants' cage before a hearing at the Khimki Court, outside Moscow on July 27, 2022 (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Bout, 55, had agreed to sell 100 portable surface-to-air missiles and around 5,000 AK-47 assault rifles to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia during the meeting at a Bangkok hotel.

But instead, he had actually sat down with US Drug Enforcement Administration officials posing as members of the left-wing guerrilla group that was designated a terror organisation by the US.

In this photo provided by the U.S. Department of Justice, former Soviet military officer and arms trafficking suspect Viktor Bout (C) deplanes after arriving at Westchester County Airport November 16, 2010 in White Plains, New York
In this photo provided by the U.S. Department of Justice, former Soviet military officer and arms trafficking suspect Viktor Bout (C) deplanes after arriving at Westchester County Airport November 16, 2010 in White Plains, New York (Getty Images)

Following the sentencing, then-Attorney General Eric Holder called Bout “one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers.”

US authorities said after his arrest that Bout, who reportedly speaks six languages, had also sold weapons to guerrilla fighters and dictators in South America, Africa and the Middle East.

Officials believe that Bout began selling weaponry in African war zones in the 1990s, and in 2004 the US Treasury Department banned any business dealings with him over claims he had made $50m from selling arms to the Taliban.

Ever since he was convicted, the Russian government demanded his release.

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