By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent Worthy News
MOSCOW/WASHINGTON (Worthy News) – Freedom appeared a little closer Thursday to several detainees after the United States offered a prisoner swap to Russia: Viktor Bout, a notorious Russian arms dealer, for Brittney Griner, the American basketball star, and Paul Whelan, a former Marine.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed that he requested to speak to Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, by phone for the first time since Russia invaded Ukraine.
He said the talks would focus on a “substantial proposal” to free Griner and Whelan. The U.S. State Department says the two were wrongfully detained.
The statement marked the first time the U.S. government publicly revealed any concrete action to secure their release, including Griner, who testified on Wednesday at her drugs trial.
Griner was detained on drug-related charges at a Moscow airport in February after authorities said they found vape cartridges that contained hashish oil in her luggage.
Her lawyers claimed the star had a medical prescription for the hashish oil and mistakenly carried the drug into Russia. Yet, a criminal case carrying a sentence of up to 10 years was later opened against her.
CANNABIS IN BAG
At her trial, Griner said Wednesday she did not know how the cannabis oil ended up in her bag.
The latest diplomatic actions to free her and others come after Griner sent a handwritten letter to President Joe Biden asking him not to forget about her.
Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris reportedly spoke with Cherelle Griner, the star’s wife, who questioned whether the Biden administration is doing enough.
Fellow prisoner Paul Whelan, a corporate security executive from Michigan, was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison on espionage charges. He and his family have vigorously asserted his innocence. Washington also denounced the charges as false.
However, if the deal goes ahead, the Americans would be exchanged for Bout, known as the “Merchant of Death.” The arms trader is serving a 25-year federal prison sentence for conspiring to sell weapons to people who said they planned to kill Americans.
Should the call about their release occur, it would be the first conversation top diplomats Blinken and Lavrov held since February 15, about a week before Russia invaded Ukraine.
PRISONER SWAP CONCERNS
The U.S. government has been reluctant to carry out prisoner swaps amid concern it could encourage additional hostage-taking.
American officials also expressed concern it could promote false equivalency between a wrongfully detained American and a foreign national regarded as justly convicted.
But an earlier deal in April, in which U.S. marine veteran Trevor Reed was traded for the jailed Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, appeared to open the door to similar resolutions.
There were mixed responses to Wednesday’s announcement, with Michael McFaul, the former US ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014, applauding Blinken’s efforts.
However, on social media, he also urged Biden to include in the deal detained American teacher Marc Fogel who was sentenced to 14 years in prison earlier this year on drug charges.
Airport authorities in Moscow arrested him for carrying marijuana in his suitcases, which he insisted was prescribed to him in the U.S. after a spinal operation.
DRUG OFFENSES QUESTIONS
The Libertarian party of New Hampshire reacted to the possible exchange of prisoners by writing about action on drug offenses in the US, saying: “America is mad at Russia for doing to Brittney Griner what it does to 374,000 people per year.”
Blinken said that besides talking about a prisoners swap, he would urge Lavrov to respect a United Nations-brokered deal struck in Turkey last Friday to free multiple tons of Ukrainian grain from storage.
It comes after Russian missiles struck the port city of Odesa, adding to fears food supplies may be delayed though millions face starvation.
Blinken also plans to warn Lavrov about the dangers of possible Russian attempts to annex portions of eastern and southern Ukraine amid clashes rage in a war that killed tens of thousands of people.
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