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Russia’s Lavrov says he will discuss US prisoner swap offer

Russia’s foreign minister says he is open to discuss US hopes for a prisoner swap of American basketball star Brittney Griner and jailed American Paul Whelan in possible exchange for convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout.

July 29, 2022
By Vladimir Isachenkov
29 July 2022

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says he’s open to a call with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to discuss a possible prisoner swap involving American basketball star Brittney Griner.

Blinken said on Wednesday that Washington had offered Russia a deal that would bring home Griner and another jailed American, Paul Whelan. A person familiar with the matter said the US government proposed trading convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for Whelan and Griner.

Speaking on a visit to Uzbekistan on Friday, Lavrov said his ministry had received an official US request for a call after Blinken made the statement. Russia’s top diplomat said he would be ready once he returns to Moscow and that the timing of the call was being worked out.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken says the Biden administration has offered a deal to Russia aimed at bringing home WNBA star Brittney Griner and another jailed American Paul Whelan. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Lavrov said he was open to discussing the prisoner exchange, even though the Foreign Ministry hasn’t been involved in previous discussions on the issue.

“I will listen to what he has to say,” Lavrov added.

Asked on Thursday about the US offer, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov replied that prisoner swaps were typically negotiated discreetly behind the scenes.

“We know that such issues are discussed without any such release of information,” Peskov told reporters during a conference call. “Normally, the public learns about it when the agreements are already implemented.”

Blinken’s comments marked the first time the US government publicly revealed any concrete action it has taken to secure Griner’s release. The two-time Olympic gold medallist and player for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury was arrested at a Moscow airport in mid-February when inspectors found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage.

WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medallist Brittney Griner. (Evgenia Novozhenina/Pool Photo via AP)

Griner’s arrest came at a time of heightened tensions between Moscow and Washington ahead of Russia sending troops into Ukraine on February 24. Griner’s five months of detention have raised strong criticism among teammates and supporters in the United States.

The 31-year-old has pleaded guilty but said she had no criminal intent in bringing the cartridges to Russia and packed in haste for her return to play in a Russian basketball league during the WNBA’s offseason. She faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of transporting drugs.

The Biden administration has faced political pressure to free Griner and other Americans whom the US has declared to be “wrongfully detained” — a designation sharply rejected by Russian officials.

Whelan, a corporate security executive from Michigan, was sentenced to 16 years in prison on espionage charges in 2020. He and his family have vigorously asserted his innocence. The US government has denounced the charges as false.

Russia has for years expressed interest in the release of Bout, a Russian arms dealer once labelled the “Merchant of Death”. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2012 on charges that he schemed to illegally sell weapons worth millions of dollars.

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