The convicted Russian criminal and the WNBA star were exchanged in a prisoner swap last year
Viktor Bout, the convicted Russian criminal who was swapped in exchange for WNBA star Brittney Griner, says in a new interview that he wished her “good luck” when they crossed paths on a tarmac in Abu Dhabi.
The prisoner exchange on neutral grounds in the United Arab Emirates took place last December.
"I said, you know, 'I wish you good luck,' " Bout, 56, recalled in a new interview with ESPN. "And, you know, and we both went to our, you know, planes."
Bout is an arms dealer widely known as “The Merchant of Death,” and was serving a 25-year prison sentence after he was convicted of four felony charges in 2011, including his role in conspiring to kill Americans, supplying anti-aircraft missiles and aiding a terrorist organization.
The Russian was serving his sentence at the United States Penitentiary in Marion, Ill., when he first began hearing about a potential swap with him and Griner on the news. Then, he told ESPN, one morning prison guards came to his cell and told him he was being released later that day.
Bout told ESPN he shook Griner’s hand before wishing her good luck, noting that she was “way taller than me” and that he was surprised she was without her signature hair, which she had cut off in anticipation of a long Russian winter in prison.
"Of course, I feel, you know, bad or sorry for any person who's going to be used as a pawn, despite whether they committed something or not,” Bout told ESPN about Griner, adding that he and Griner paid a “price” for politicians who “play chess, on this big chessboard which they call geopolitics."
President Joe Biden authorized Bout’s release in exchange for Griner, who was initially arrested in Russia last February after customs officers found a vape with cannabis oil in her luggage.
The WNBA star’s arrest came one week before Russia invaded Ukraine, adding global political tension to her detainment.
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U.S. officials faced backlash for not including Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine still detained in Russia on disputed spying charges, in the exchange deal.
Griner missed the 2022 WNBA season but returned to the court earlier this year for the Phoenix Mercury. The Mercury are currently in last place with two regular season games left, however Griner has appeared to barely skip a beat upon her first season back, making her ninth WNBA All-Star Game and leading Phoenix with 17.7 points and 6.6 rebounds per game.
At the All-Star game earlier this year, Griner told reporters she’s “cherished” fans’ support since she made her return in May.
“It means the world,” Griner said.
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