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Biden and Putin focus on prisoners during Geneva summit

During their three-hour summit talks in Geneva, U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin focused on imprisoned Americans in Russia and the possibility of prisoner exchanges between the two nations _ a parley long sought by allies of convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

Putin did not specifically cite the imprisoned Russian arms trafficker, whose lawyers and family have clamored over the last several years for such an exchange that could send Bout back to Moscow. But Bout’s allies have sharpened their calls for a prisoner exchange after Russian courts recently convicted and then jailed two Americans, ex-Marines Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed.

“The question about American citizens that were in Russian prisons, we discussed that there could be some compromise that we enter into between the Russian Foreign Ministry and the U.S. State Department,” Putin said in translated remarks during a televised news conference after the session with Biden.

“They will be working on it,” Putin added.

During his own press conference, Biden was more circumspect, saying nothing of possible diplomacy but boring in on the two Americans held in Russian jails. Biden said he had “raised the cases of the two wrongfully-imprisoned American citizens” with Putin, mentioning both Whelan and Reed. And he said that in the coming months, “we’ll find out whether we’ll have the release of American prisoners from Russian prisons.”

“The bottom line is I told President Putin that we need to have some basic rules of the road that we can all abide by,” Biden said.

According to the Washington Post, Putin suggested that he and Biden “had touched on the concept of a prisoner swap during their meeting but had reached no conclusion.”

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. Bout is scheduled to be released from the mostly-underground prison in 2029.

Bout’s 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.”

Bout’s wife, Alla, and his mother, Raisa, both recently publicly called for his release through a swap with the U.S. in exchange for Whelan, an ex-Marine convicted by a Moscow court and jailed for a 16-year prison term on espionage charges, which Whelan has denied. A Russian court more recently convicted Reed, another former Marine, after his arrest in Moscow in 2019 for assaulting a Russian policeman. Reed faces 9 years in a Russian prison.

The Biden administration has given no public hint that it is considering a prisoner exchange involving Bout, and a Russian diplomat recently downplayed the possibility. Following Russia-based ransomware attacks on a major American gas pipeline and a meat processor, Biden has said the U.S. would be eager to press for the extradition of cyber-hacking criminal suspects in Russia in exchange for hackers in the U.S. who had targeted Russian interests.