A prisoner exchange involving US basketball player Brittney Griner resulted in the release from US custody of Viktor Bout, one of the most notorious arms dealers the world has ever seen.
When Griner was returning to the US from playing in Russia, airport security in Moscow discovered cannabis oil in her suitcase, and she was taken into detention.
For months, there had been rumours in the US media that senior state department officials had attempted to obtain Griner’s release in exchange for the freedom of the arms dealer.
The former Soviet air force officer’s actions were so well-known that a Hollywood movie was made about them, and they also gave him a moniker that is incredibly terrifying.
The Merchant of Death, though, who is he?
Following a sting operation conducted by the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) two years prior, Bout was extradited from Thailand to the US in 2010.
Agents from the DEA pretended to be Farc (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) purchasers. The United States designated that group, which has since disintegrated, as a terrorist organisation.
Bout asserted that he was simply a businessman operating a legal international transport company who had been falsely accused of attempting to supply South American rebels who were the victims of US political intrigue.
But a New York jury didn’t accept his account.
After being found guilty of conspiring to assassinate Americans and US officials, transporting anti-aircraft missiles, and assisting a terrorist organisation, he was given a 25-year prison sentence in April 2012.
At Bout’s three-week trial, it was revealed that the weapons would be used to murder US pilots cooperating with Colombian authorities. We have the same adversary, he allegedly responded when asked.
Bout, a Russian national who was born in Tajikistan during Soviet administration, started working in air transport in the early 1990s, following the collapse of the USSR.
Security specialists Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun wrote a book in 2007 titled Merchant of Death that claims Bout expanded his company using military aircraft that were abandoned on the airfields of the Soviet Union’s disintegrating empire in the early 1990s.
The tough Antonovs and Ilyushins, which were ideal for transporting supplies to challenging airstrips during times of conflict all around the world, were for sale along with their crews.
According to reports, Bout, who was 45 when he received his sentence, started supplying weapons to war-torn regions of Africa through a number of front firms.
He was identified by the UN as a close friend of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who was found guilty in 2012 of complicity in war crimes committed during the Sierra Leone civil war.
According to UN papers, “Bout is a trader, dealer, and transporter of weapons and minerals who helped the regime of former President Taylor in [an] endeavour to destabilise Sierra Leone and secure unlawful access to diamonds.”
According to Middle Eastern media accounts, he was a gunrunner for the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
He is also accused of providing weapons to warlords and governments in countries ranging from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic to Sudan and Libya, as well as arming both sides in the civil conflict in Angola.
He categorically denied ever working with al-Qaeda or the Taliban in an interview with the UK’s Channel 4 News in 2009.
He did, however, acknowledge bringing weapons into Afghanistan in the middle of the 1990s, claiming that the commanders using them were battling the Taliban.
Additionally, he asserted that he had delivered UN personnel and aid that had been transported to Rwanda by the French government following the genocide.
However, he was being sought after by law enforcement throughout the 2000s. When a warrant for his arrest was issued in Belgium in 2002, he evacuated his home country.
Before reemerging in Russia in 2003, Bout is believed to have travelled under a number of identities and passed through places like the United Arab Emirates and South Africa.
Peter Hain, a minister in the British Foreign Office, created the moniker “Merchandiser of Death” that same year.
According to Mr. Hain, who had read a 2003 study on him, Bout is the “chief merchant of death” and the “primary conduit for planes and supply routes that transfer weaponry… from East Europe, especially from Bulgaria, Moldova, and Ukraine to Liberia and Angola.”
The UN has revealed Bout as the hub of a labyrinth of unscrupulous diamond traders, gun traffickers, and other operatives that support the wars.
Throughout the 2000s, the US took action against Bout, blocking his assets in 2006, but there was no US statute that he could be charged under there.
Instead, US operatives waited until 2008 when they pretended to be purchasers for the Farc rebels in Colombia and met Bout after being introduced to him by one of his former cronies.
Bout was detained by Thai authorities shortly after the undercover agents discussed arms shipments to the Farc with him, and protracted legal efforts to extradite him to the US started.
Bout claimed that the US prosecution against him was politically driven; according to his wife, he just had “tango lessons” in Colombia.
Throughout his legal proceedings, the Russian government stood behind him. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov vowed to fight for his return to Russia and dubbed the Thai court’s ruling “unjust and political.”
The antihero escapes prosecution at the end of the 2005 movie Lord of War, which is largely based on the life of the arms trader.
Bout has been flown home to freedom after spending 12 years in prison, when it may have appeared doubtful that he would ever be released at all.