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Why was the “Merchant of Death” allowed to walk free?

Bout during his extradition hearing in Thailand in 2008. Chumsak Kanoknan/Getty

The release of American basketball star Brittney Griner after 10 months behind bars in Russia is “cause for justifiable celebration”, says Bloomberg. The 32-year-old faced nearly a decade of hard labour after being caught at Moscow airport with cannabis oil. But the process that brought her home gives “cause for concern”. In exchange for Griner, the US handed over Viktor Bout, a convicted arms dealer known as the “Merchant of Death”. It’s hardly a fair trade: Bout has supplied weapons to terrorists and rogues around the world, from the Taliban to Colonel Gaddafi. He’s believed to have links to Vladimir Putin’s inner circle; a Kremlin spokesman called his release “a true Christmas present”. Griner, by contrast, is an “athlete with no discernible intelligence value”.

The Biden administration announced the swap with a “self-congratulatory social-media barrage”, so it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Griner’s celebrity gave her cause an “outsized urgency”. There are, after all, about 60 other American hostages currently held overseas, including Paul Whelan, a former US Marine serving a 16-year sentence in Russia for alleged espionage. And in its “almost desperate willingness to do a deal”, the US has risked emboldening other regimes to detain prominent Western citizens and use them as leverage. Biden must make it clear that efforts to free hostages will not come at the expense of national security.

🧨🎤 Bout was originally captured in 2008 in a sting at a Thai hotel, says Elaine Shannon in Politico. “Ricardo” and “Carlos”, former Colombian rebels who had been arrested by the US and turned into “cooperating insiders”, lured him to a pretend business meeting. Though they originally asked for “just 5,000 AK-47s and a mere ton of explosives”, Bout offered all kinds of toys, including “ultralight airplanes outfitted with grenade launchers” and 700 to 800 shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles. The two men were equipped with hidden microphones that recorded it all.