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Who is the Russian arms dealer that the U.S. exchanged for Brittney Griner?

The U.S. government set up an elaborate operation in 2008 to capture and prosecute Viktor Bout, dubbed “the Merchant of Death.”
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In the 2005 Nicolas Cage movie “Lord of War,” the character loosely based on Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout evades his American law enforcement pursuers, apparently saved by the CIA.

But in real life, the U.S. government set up an elaborate operation in 2008 to capture and prosecute Bout, dubbed “the Merchant of Death,” because he was said to be one of the world’s largest illicit arms dealers.

Now he is on his way back to Russia after a high-profile prisoner exchange that saw WNBA star Brittney Griner free early Thursday.

The long-rumored exchange had sparked a debate over whether the U.S. should give in to blackmail, given the disparity between the case of Bout, who was lawfully convicted of serious crimes, and Griner, who faced a stacked Russian justice system and was considered by U.S. officials to be a hostage.

“I would take that trade,” said Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, speaking in July long before the prisoner swap.

Viktor Bout
Alleged Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, dubbed the "Merchant of Death," sits inside a detention center while waiting for a hearing on extradition to the United States charge at criminal court in Bangkok on May 19, 2009.Apichart Weerawong / AP file

Under federal sentencing rules, Bout could have been released from prison in five years.

Bout, 55, was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison in 2012 after he was convicted of selling arms to Colombian rebels, which prosecutors said were intended to kill Americans. The Russian government had been demanding his release ever since, saying he was unfairly targeted. 

After the sentencing, Attorney General Eric Holder called Bout “one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers,” while the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, New York, Preet Bharara, said he had been “international arms trafficking enemy number one for many years, arming some of the most violent conflicts around the globe.” Amnesty International says he sold arms to sanctioned human rights abusers in Angola, Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Bout, a former Soviet military officer who became rich as an arms dealer, has always maintained his innocence. 

Experts are not certain why Moscow wanted him back so badly. Some U.S. government officials have said he had links to Russian intelligence.

After years of U.S. pursuit, the Drug Enforcement Administration ensnared Bout in an elaborate sting, with agents posing as Colombian rebels whom the U.S. had designated as a terrorist organization. After they consummated a huge weapons deal in a Bangkok hotel room, Bout said, “Gringos are enemies,” according to an account of the sting in a 2012 article in The New Yorker. “For me, it’s not business — it’s my fight.” 

Moments later, armed agents burst through the door and arrested him.

His U.S. lawyer, Steve Zissou, says the whole operation was unfair, because Bout had been retired and living in Moscow.

U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin, who presided over the case, agreed. 

“But for the approach made through this determined sting operation, there is no reason to believe Bout would ever have committed the charged crimes,” she said at sentencing, where she gave him the mandatory minimum.