Brittney Griner: Russia “ready” to discuss prisoner swap
Russia said on Friday it was “ready” to discuss a prisoner exchange with the United States, the day after the sentencing of American women’s basketball star Brittney Griner to nine years in prison.
The player, convicted by a Russian court in a controversial case of “drug trafficking”, despite herself found herself plunged into the geopolitical crisis between Washington and Moscow, in the middle of the conflict in Ukraine.
US President Joe Biden has called the conviction of the 31-year-old double Olympic champion “unacceptable”, with the United States accusing Moscow of using her case to extract concessions from Washington.
The US administration has been claiming for several days that it has submitted a proposal to the Kremlin to obtain Ms Griner’s release, but Russian diplomacy repeated that an exchange could only be discussed once the verdict had been reached.
“We are ready to discuss this topic, but only within the framework of the (diplomatic) channel that was agreed by Presidents (Vladimir) Putin and Biden,” Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said on Friday during a trip to Cambodia.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that this specific communication channel for negotiating prisoner exchanges was the subject of an agreement between Mr Biden and Mr Putin during talks in Geneva last year.
The head of American diplomacy Antony Blinken, who had already held talks with Mr. Lavrov last week about an exchange, indicated on Friday that the United States would “continue” to discuss it with Russia.
He also considered that Ms. Griner’s conviction illustrated “the Russian government’s use of illegitimate detentions to advance its interests by using individuals as political pawns”.
– “Substantial and serious” offer –
Brittney Griner, considered one of the best basketball players in the world, was sentenced on Thursday to nine years in prison for drug trafficking by a court in Khimki, near Moscow.
This heavy prison sentence has raised a wave of indignation, especially in the world of sports.
She had been arrested in February at a Moscow airport with cannabis-based vaping liquid. She admitted to having been in possession of this substance, however claiming to have inadvertently brought it to Russia and to use it legally in the United States as a pain reliever.
She had come to Russia to play during the American offseason, a common practice for WNBA basketball players who often earn a better living abroad than in the United States.
The sportswoman is one of several American citizens currently detained in Russia and whose release Washington wants to obtain.
Washington said last week that it had made a “substantial” and “serious” offer to secure the return of Ms Griner and Paul Whelan, an American who is serving a 16-year prison sentence in Russia for “espionage”.
– Russian arms dealer –
According to several American media reports, it would be a question of exchanging a famous Russian arms dealer detained in the United States, Viktor Bout, for Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan.
Mr. Bout, who was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and is serving a 25-year prison sentence in the United States, is nicknamed the “merchant of death”. His extraordinary career was one of the inspirations for the film “Lord of War” in which Nicolas Cage plays a cynical arms dealer.
The arms dealer’s wife, Alla Bout, also said Thursday that she hoped for an exchange, expressing her “compassion” for Brittney Griner’s relatives. “May God ensure that our countries find an understanding,” Ms Bout told the Ria-Novosti news agency.
Neither Russia nor the United States have confirmed, and Moscow insists on its desire to keep the negotiations confidential, being annoyed by statements made by American officials.
“If the Americans still decide to engage in public diplomacy and make resounding statements (…) this is their business, and even their problem,” Lavrov said on Friday, saying that Washington “cannot manage” to work “calmly and professionally” on many issues.
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