Viktor Bout, the notorious Russian gun dealer dubbed the "Merchant of Death," was released from a U.S. prison Thursday in exchange for WNBA star Brittney Griner.
Bout, 55, is a former Soviet military officer and translator who was serving a 25-year prison sentence for conspiring to kill Americans, acquiring and export anti-aircraft missiles and providing material support to a terrorist organization. Bout claimed he was innocent, and the Kremlin repeatedly dismissed the U.S. prosecution as "baseless and biased."
Russia had been trying to arrange a deal for Bout's release since his arrest in 2008. The exchange of Griner for Bout, the son of a mechanic and a bookkeeper, was completed at an airport in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on Thursday, the Russian Foreign Ministry said.
"As a result of the efforts made, we managed to agree with the American side to arrange an exchange of Viktor Bout for Brittney Griner," the ministry said in a statement. "The Russian citizen has been returned to his homeland."
BRITTNEY GRINER RELEASEDfrom Russian prison as part of prisoner exchange for Viktor Bout
Bout released from penitentiary in Illinois
Bout had been held at the U.S. Penitentiary Marion, a medium security federal prison in Illinois. He was scheduled for release on Aug. 19, 2029, according to federal Bureau of Prisons records.
“We can confirm, Viktor Anatoliy Bout is no longer in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons,” the agency said Thursday. “For privacy, safety, and security reasons, we do not discuss any individual inmate's conditions of confinement, to include transfers or release plans.”
Bout learned English listening to ABBA
Bout, in a candid 2014 interview with The New Yorker, said he was born in 1967 in Dushanbe, in what is now Tajikistan. He honed his English, in part, by listening to the music of ABBA and Chicago. He wanted to see the world and soon was traveling around the Soviet Union playing competitive volleyball. He eventually quit to have more time for girls, he told the New Yorker.
He spent several years in the army, and soon after he left the military, the Soviet Union disintegrated. As a civilian, he started an air freight company that included scores of planes. He said his first arms deal took place in 1995 when he sold weapons to the Afghanistan government in its ill-fated effort to crush the Taliban insurgency. Deals with Al Qaeda, militants in Rwanda and other shadowy organizations followed.
Dealing arms is not necessarily illegal, but transactions require an “end-user certificate” identifying the buyer. When selling to militant groups or nations facing international sanctions, the certificates historically have been forged or falsified to accommodate illegal sales.
Viktor Bout inspires role in 'Lord of War'
Bout was the subject of a 2014 documentary "The Notorious Mr. Bout," which chronicled his career as an arms smuggler, aviation businessman and amateur filmmaker. The film premiered at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival.
Bout also inspired a role in the 2005 film "Lord of War." Nicholas Cage plays international gun dealer Yuri Orlov, whose character is loosely based on Bout. The film drew a gloomy thumbs-up from Amnesty International.
'The sad truth is that this film is largely based on facts," said Brian Wood, then a researcher for Amnesty International. "Gunrunners really are able to fly and ship weapons into conflict zones where civilians are slaughtered. They can arm some of the world's worst human rights abusers. Yet the lack of legally binding controls means that, like Nicolas Cage's character, they can laugh in the face of the law."
SPORTS WORLD REACTS TO GRINER'S RELEASE: 'BG is FREE!!!'
Russian arms dealer arrested in 2008
Bout, fluent in at least six languages, has been in custody since his 2008 arrest in Thailand. He was nabbed in a sting operation led by U.S. drug enforcement agents in Thailand posing as members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – a Marxist-Leninist guerrilla group that conducted an armed struggle against the Colombian government until 2017. Then-Attorney General Eric Holder described Bout as "one of the world's most prolific arms dealers," but it took two years of court battles for his extradition to the U.S. to be approved.
'Merchant of Death' considered US a sworn enemy
In a recorded meeting, Bout declared to undercover agents that the United States was his sworn enemy. He offered to sell them, as part of an extensive arsenal of heavy weapons, hundreds of surface-to-air missiles to be used against U.S. military advisers and the Colombian military.
Bout claimed he operated legitimate businesses and provided transportation logistics for shipments of any products.
'Enemy No. 1' is brought to justice
Bout was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2012. In announcing the sentence, Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, described Bout as "international arms trafficking enemy No. 1 for many years." Bharara said Bout had armed some of the most violent conflicts around the world.
"He was finally brought to justice in an American court for agreeing to provide a staggering number of military-grade weapons to an avowed terrorist organization committed to killing Americans," Bharara said.
Contributing: Kevin Johnson
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Who is Viktor Bout? Details on gun dealer in prisoner swap for Griner