Sentencing of American in Moscow raises potential prison swap for Viktor Bout

The spying conviction and sentencing Monday of ex-Marine Paul Whelan in a Moscow courtroom has again raised the prospect of a potential prisoner swap between Russia and the U.S. that could include convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout, Russian officials suggested today.

Whelan was sentenced Monday to 16 years in a Russian prison for his role in a government sting operation that targeted him in a Moscow hotel room in December 2018 for hiding a flash drive containing classified Russian information, according to Reuters and Russian government media accounts.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said “the United States is outraged by the decision of a Russian court today to convict U.S. citizen Paul Whelan after a secret trial, with secret evidence, and without appropriate allowances for defense witnesses.”

Despite Pompeo’s angry eruption, both Whelan’s lawyer and Russian officials _ along with Bout’s wife, Alla _ were quick to press for a prisoner swap that would allow Russia to repatriate Bout and perhaps other Russians now languishing in U.S. jails.

Bout is serving a 25 year prison sentence in a medium-security federal prison in Marion, Ill. for his 2011 conviction for conspiring to target U.S. officials with lethal weapons during a U.S. government sting operation featuring informants posing as South American narco-terrorists. His 2008 arrest in Bangkok by U.S. narcotics agents and Thai police followed more than a decade of his exploits in Africa, Asia and the Mideast and a determined international manhunt to apprehend him, a saga chronicled in the book, “Merchant of Death.”

Earlier this month, Russian diplomats urged the State Department to release Bout because of fears he and other Russian prisoners in the U.S. were endangered by the spread of Covid-19 _ even though Russia is struggling with its own massive surge of virus cases.

According to Reuters, Whelan’s lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, said that the American prisoner was told when he was detained that he would be part of a prisoner swap with the United States. Zherebenkov was quoted as saying he he believed Moscow wanted to do a deal involving Bout and Yaroshenko. The lawyer added that Whelan does not oppose the idea of formally asking Russia to pardon him, but wants to first appeal the verdict.

The Russian foreign ministry has proposed such a swap involving Bout several times, including a press conference at the Russian consulate in New York last September attended by Alla Bout. Along with Bout, the Russian government has also pressed for the release of Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was convicted in New York of conspiracy to smuggle cocaine.

Alla Bout told Russian government RIA news agency on Monday she was ready to pen an appeal to U.S. authorities asking them to swap her husband for Whelan.