Brittney Griner faces nearly a decade in jail. (The Washington Post via Getty Images)
US secretary of state Antony Blinken says he has cranked up the pressure on Russia for a potential prisoner swap involving American basketball star Brittney Griner.
During a news conference in Washington Friday (29 July), Blinken said he had a “frank and direct conversation” with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov earlier that day.
He said: “I pressed the Kremlin to accept the substantial proposal that we put forth on the release of Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner.”
Blinken did not give any indication of how Lavrov responded to the call, which would have been their first discussion since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February according to Politico.
But Blinken’s Russian counterpart has suggested he is open to a deal. Speaking at a visit to Uzbekistan on Friday, Lavrov told reporters he had received a request for the trade from Blinken.
“I will listen to what he has to say,” he said, the Associated Press reported.
Blinken’s offer on the table would see Washington offer Moscow Viktor Bout, a convicted Russian arms dealer accused of supplying arms to militants, terrorists and rebels, for Griner and former Marine Paul Whelan.
He has yet to outline details of the proposed exchange, but Washington sources told CNN that Bout is the main bargaining chip the Joe Biden administration has to offer.
Bout, 55, is among the most high-profile Russians held in US custody. He was thrown behind bars for 25 years following a sting operation in which he was caught offering firearms to Drug Enforcement Administration agents he believed represented rebels from Colombia’s Revolutionary Armed Forces in 2008. Officials have accused Bout of supplying weapons to Al Qaeda, the Taliban and militants in Rwanda.
Griner, a queer Women’s National Basketball Association player, has been detained in Russia since February on drug charges.
Sheremetyevo International Airport inspectors found cannabis oil in her luggage, which carries a nearly decade-long prison sentence in Russia. She pleaded guilty to the charges but has stressed she had no criminal intent, having brought the oil in a rush while packing.
The two-time Olympic medallist detailed during her first testimony on Wednesday how she was offered little to no explanation about why she was being arrested and was not read her rights.
Only after 16 hours of interrogations did a lawyer come to help her, while her provided language interpreter only partially translated the charges to her.
Whelan was detained in 2018 on espionage charges, which he has long maintained are based on a bogus sting operation. A Russian court sentenced him to 16 years in jail.