The lawyer for notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout said Monday he was “confident” the US and Russia will work out a deal to swap his client for WNBA star Brittney Griner and former Marine Paul Whelan — and took umbrage at the “Merchant of Death” moniker bestowed on Bout.
“I’m confident that this is going to get done,” Steve Zissou, Bout’s New York-based lawyer, told CNN, later adding of Moscow: “Look, it’s no secret, they’ve been wanting him back for several years now. They’ve been trying to get him back for decades. That’s not something they’ve ever kept secret.”
Over the weekend, the cable news outlet reported that the Kremlin had added former Russian spy and convicted murderer Vadim Krasikov to its ask in any potential agreement.
“I don’t know that that has happened,” Zissou said. “I know that there’s a lot of chatter out there. The thing that you have to understand about this kind of negotiation is there is always going to be some names put on the table back and forth, who we want, who we don’t want it. Look, it’s part of any prisoner exchange negotiation.”
The lawyer added that he thought Russia would be willing to let Griner and Whelan go in exchange for Bout alone, but took umbrage at host John Avlon’s description of his client as a “notorious international arms dealer.”
“At the time the US government targeted Victor Bout back in 2005, 2006, he was retired, living in Moscow, no longer in the transportation business,” Zissou said.
“‘Transportation business,’ that’s your story?” Avlon interrupted. “I mean, he’s an arms dealer, correct?”
“He transports a lot of things. He transported for the US government, as a matter of fact, back in the 2000s,” Zissou insisted.
“It’s no worse than this ‘Merchant of Death’ moniker that you folks in the media have continued to use on him. It’s really not so,” the lawyer continued.
“Frankly, in this country, we have more arms dealers who contribute to mass violence and mass killings in this country and are responsible for more deaths in the US than Viktor Bout ever was,” Zissou added.
Bout is serving a 25-year sentence in a US prison after he was convicted in 2011 of conspiracy to kill American soldiers by selling weapons to terrorists in Colombia.
Zissou also said Monday that the “worst thing” about the negotiations was the US engagement in “megaphone diplomacy.”
“The Russians are very quiet about it. The American side, for whatever reason, a lot of folks are talking about it. I just mean the folks on the government side really should not be discussing it,” he said.
Reports surfaced last week that Washington and Moscow were in discussions to swap Bout for Griner and Whelan.
Griner has been detained in Russia since Feb. 17, when she was arrested at Sheremetyevo International Airport outside Moscow after vape cartridges containing cannabis oil were found in her luggage.
She has pleaded guilty to drug possession charges and a trial is underway to determine the length of any possible prison term.
Whelan is serving a 16-year sentence after being arrested in 2018 on espionage charges in Moscow.