By Eve Jamilkowski
WNBA superstar Brittney Griner, who spent ten months in a Russian prison, was granted release this in exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was serving his 25-year sentence at the United States Penitentiary, Marion in Indiana.
Griner was detained in February after Russian police accused her of carrying 0.702 grams of a hash oil cartridge in her luggage at an airport near Moscow. According to The New York Times, Griner was in Russia to rejoin the professional basketball team she plays off-season from WNBA, UMMC Ekaterinburg.
In August, Griner was convicted by a Russian court of “attempting to distribute narcotics” in Russia and was sentenced to nine years in prison. Her lawyer’s appeal for conviction was denied in October, and she was promptly moved to one of Russia’s isolated penitentiaries, IK-2 Mordovia.
A 2017 article from a local Russian newspaper interviewed former inmates at the prison who detailed their own accounts of horror while jailed in Mordovia. Olga Sh., who was released in 2014 and now works in Moscow as a manicurist, said that the physical abuse she suffered was severe and only transfer to another region saved her from death.
Other inmates interviewed described the same abuse: long hours of work without a break, prisoner beatings over minor infractions, and countless women driven to death by suicide. Rising at 6 am and beginning work at 7 am, some prisoners were forced to work until 3 am if they had not done their share of work.
Workers also had to earn the privilege of using the toilet, dining room, or going out for a walk based on how much work they did. Some inmates took jars and bags with them into the sewing factory at which they worked, often relieving themselves without leaving the sewing machine.
Just days after his return to Russia, Viktor Bout joined one of the largest political parties in Russia, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR), according to Felix Light for Reuters. Despite its name, the LDPR has embraced a hard ultra-nationalist ideology where Russia reconquers the countries that made up the former Soviet Union, including Ukraine.
Though it used to be a serious contender in holding majority power in Russia’s version of the House and the Senate, known as the State Duma, the LDPR has undertaken a quiet but active role in Russia’s political system who backs the Kremlin on most issues.
There is concern that Bout’s joining of the political party could mean he is planning on running for a seat in the parliament in the future, Insider reports. However, the arms dealer has told Russian media that he has no “immediate plans” to participate in any elections, according to the Guardian.
The move has already begun to receive praise from many Putin supporters, most notably Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin. “Viktor Bout is not a person, he is an example of firmness,” Prigozhin said in a statement posted by his catering company, Concord. “Bout will certainly be good at the head of any existing party and any movement.”
The Pentagon, on the other hand, has expressed concern that Bout may return to his old line of work. Bout has also claimed that if given the chance, he would “certainly go as a volunteer” to fight Putin’s war in Ukraine.