‘Merchant of Death’ lawyer: Swap for Griner, Whelan is ‘no brainer’

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(NewsNation) — WNBA star Brittney Griner has been held by Russia for 140 days. The White House says they are doing everything to bring her home safely.

Some are questioning if everything could mean a prisoner swap. With this in mind, the lawyer for one of the world’s most notorious Russian arms dealers wants to make a deal with U.S. officials.

Attorney Steve Zissou says the U.S. should ask Russia to send Americans Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner for his client, Viktor Bout, who is known as the “merchant of death.”

In an exclusive interview on NewsNation Prime, Zissou called the potential swap a “no brainer” saying he believes Moscow will be willing to make the exchange as the Biden Administration feels a sense of urgency to bring Griner home.

As President Biden grapples with low approval ratings, Zissou pointed out the optics of a possible exchange. After all, it would not be the first time the U.S. made a prisoner swap with Russia.

In April, Moscow released Marine Trevor Reed in exchange for a Russian pilot who was jailed on trafficking charges. Now, there seems to be a renewed sense of urgency for Griner’s release, after she entered a guilty plea to drug possession charges in a Moscow courtroom. The basketball star could face up to 10 years in prison. Zissou believes releasing Whelan from a Russian labor camp could only sweeten the deal for his client.

“I think it has to happen for a very simple reason. A short time ago, President Biden approved the transfer of Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was setup in a similar way as Victor was. For a white male, heterosexual Marine right? Now, the optics here are bad. What? Is he not going to do a deal for the Black female lesbian basketball star? Let me throw in the fact that she’s a two-time gold medal winner. I mean, what are the optics of that? We’re going to take Trevor Reed home, but we’re going to leave Brittney Griner over there? Once you do that deal, you have got to do it again,” Zissou said. “If that means getting Viktor home for Brittney, so be it. If that means throwing in Paul Whelan, we’re OK with that, too. I frankly think the Russian government would approve that.”

Still for some, freeing Bout seems like a tall order. Bout is a former Soviet military officer who officials say made a fortune off trafficking weapons, supplying millions of them to militias and terrorists around the world with many of the groups wanting to kill Americans.

The so-called “merchant of death” is so notorious he even served as the inspiration behind Nicolas Cage’s character in the 2005 film “Lord of War.”

In 2008, the DEA and Royal Thai Police lured Bout into a sting operation that Zissou describes as a setup. He maintains that Bout has never had any ties to any terrorist organization.

Bout is serving a 25-year sentence at a federal prison in Illinois, with roughly five years left of his punishment.

Why would Russia want Bout back? Zissou says they feel like one of their respected citizens was wrongfully targeted by the United States.

“Here in the U.S. [Bout] is the notorious arms dealer. Just like in in Russia, Paul Whelan is the notorious spy. In Russia, [Bout] is a respected citizen, who the U.S. government targeted while he was retired and living in Moscow. That is an attack on a country’s sovereignty,” Zissou said.

Zissou has not been in contact with the State Department about his proposal. However, he says he has been in touch regularly with the Russian Foreign Ministry and been assured that Bout is one of Russia’s highest priorities.

Neither the U.S. or Russian governments have made official statements about making a swap for Bout.

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