Russia today said it hoped the US will return the notorious Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout – known as the ‘merchant of death’ – in exchange for WNBA star Brittney Griner in a prisoner swap.
Amid the deadliest war in Europe since World War Two, Russia and the United States are exploring a prisoner swap that would see imprisoned Americans including Griner return to the US in exchange for Bout.
‘I want to hope that the prospect not only remains but is being strengthened, and that the moment will come when we will get a concrete agreement,’ Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted as saying by Interfax.
‘The Americans are showing some external activity, we are working professionally through a special channel designed for this,’ Ryabkov said. ‘Viktor Bout is among those who are being discussed, and we certainly count on a positive result.’
News of the potential prisoner swap comes days after Griner, 32, was moved to a brutal penal colony in central Russia.
Russia today said it hoped the US will return the notorious Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout – known as the ‘merchant of death’ – in exchange for WNBA star Brittney Griner (pictured on August 4 in Russia) in a prisoner swap
For almost two decades, Viktor Bout (pictured in 2010 in Bangkok) was one of the world’s most notorious arms dealers, selling weaponry to rogue states, rebel groups and murderous warlords in Africa, Asia and South America
For the US and Russia, now grappling with the gravest confrontation since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the exchange would mark one of the more extraordinary prisoner swaps in their history.
The possible swap includes Griner, facing nine years behind bars in Russia after being convicted on drug charges, and retired US Marine Paul Whelan who is serving a 16-year sentence in Russia after being convicted of espionage charges that he denies.
They could be swapped for Bout, who is variously dubbed ‘the merchant of death’ and ‘the sanctions buster’ for his ability to get around arms embargoes.
For almost two decades, Bout was one of the world’s most notorious arms dealers, selling weaponry to rogue states, rebel groups and murderous warlords in Africa, Asia and South America.
But in 2008, Bout was arrested in an elaborate U.S. sting.
Bout was caught on camera agreeing to sell undercover U.S. agents posing as representatives of Colombia’s leftist FARC guerrillas 100 surface-to-air missiles, which they would use to kill U.S. troops. Shortly afterwards, he was arrested by Thai police.
Bout was tried on the charges related to FARC, which he denied, and in 2012 was convicted and sentenced by a court in Manhattan to 25 years in prison, the minimum sentence possible.
Ever since, the Russian state has been keen to get him back.
Griner has been transferred to a penal colony in the central region of Mordovia, about 300 miles southeast of Moscow, her lawyers said on Thursday, confirming a Reuters report.
PICTURED: Russian female penal colony IK-2 in Yavas, about 500 km (300 miles) southeast of Moscow, in 1990
The IK-2 women’s penal colony in Yavas (pictured here in 1990) is one of several similar facilities in Mordovia
Griner has been moved to IK-2 in Yavas, one of several penal colonies in the region, according to Reuters
The US athlete was arrested at a Moscow airport in February and handed nine years in prison in August for possessing vape cartridges with a small quantity of cannabis oil.
At her trial, Griner – who played basketball for a Russian team in the U.S. off-season – said she had used cannabis for relief from sports injuries but had not meant to break the law. She told the court she made an honest mistake by packing the cartridges in her luggage.
Last week US President Joe Biden voiced hope that Russian leader Vladimir Putin would negotiate ‘more seriously’ to free Griner.
Griner has now been moved to IK-2 in Yavas, one of several penal colonies in the region of Mordovia.
Founded for the Soviet gulag system in 1931, Yavas remains one of the largest hubs in the Russian network of prisons and penal colonies. It currently has three institutions, including a women’s colony, a men’s colony, and a co-ed colony.
One infamous women’s facility in Mordovia, IK-14, is located just seven minutes from Yavas.
The notorious penal colony is known as a rat-infested sweatshop for prisoners, some of whom have lost fingers during long hours at their sewing machines.
To deal with the rat population, the guards enlisted stray cats, which were later discarded into furnaces to keep their numbers down, according to a 2019 Radio Free Europe report.
Veronika Krass, one former IK-14 prisoner, told Radio Free Europe that a sign reading ‘welcome to hell’ greets new inmates at the penal colony.
Notable political prisoners have served time at IK-14, including Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, a founding member of the punk group, Pussy Riot, and a vocal opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Women in Russian penal colonies have claimed they’re used as slave labor, working for 17 or 18 hours a day
‘As the inmates say, ”If you haven’t done time in Mordovia, you haven’t done time,” Tolokonnikova wrote in a letter published in 2013.
She described IK-14 as having ‘slavery-like conditions,’ where she worked in a sewing shop for ’16 to 17 hours a day’ while getting ‘four hours of sleep a night.’
Tolokonnikova’s description of IK-14 was characterized as ‘correct’ by Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) director, Valery Maksimenko.
In December of 2019, Maksimenko requested prosecutors open an investigation into slave-labor accusations at the facility in Mordovia. Ultimately IK-14 director, Yury Kupriyanov, was dismissed, along with other officials.
‘When the girls find out that they’re going to Mordovia, they cut their wrists, do everything possible: get sick, swallow nails, just so they don’t have to go there. Its reputation is known, especially after the letter by Nadia Tolokonnikova,’ said Gelena Alekseyeva, a former deputy minister who was sentenced in 2013 to 3 1/2 years in prison for abetting commercial bribery.
Alekseyeva served some of her sentence at IK-14, where she worked in the sewing shop, cutting fabric, according to Radio Free Europe.
‘The saw cuts the fabric along a chalk line continuously,’ Alekseyeva said. ‘God forbid, if the saw cuts somewhere else [and not on the chalk line], then all 100 cuts are ruined. I can say that fingers on the saw are chopped off, cut, blood flows. This is definitely unsafe, requiring some training. I was saved by the cons themselves.’
Although Griner’s specific penal colony is IK-2, one notorious women’s facility in the region, IK-14, is known as a rat-infested sweatshop for prisoners, some of whom have lost fingers during long hours at their sewing machines
A constant issue facing prisoners comes from the rats, who populate in and around the toilets.
‘Mice lived with us,’ Alekseyeva said. ‘Rats lived with us in the industrial zone. Before you went into the bathroom, you needed to knock — there were special poles for that. So that the rats would scatter, you understand.’
Rats were kept in check with the help of stray cats, whose own numbers began to rise.
‘They [the kittens] are collected in a sack and burned in the furnace,’ Alekseyeva added, saying the felines were used by guards as a bargaining chip with prisoners.
‘There is nothing more dear to the inmates than these kittens and cats,’ she continued. ‘But they can also be used for punishment. So, if you sewed badly today then we will burn the cats. They don’t punish one or two people — they punish a whole brigade.’
And prisoners could be punished for seemingly anything.
When Krass said she fell behind in her sewing quota, guards offered her a ‘spot outside,’ suggesting she would be left in the 20-degree cold overnight unless she caught up.
Violence remains a constant threat, according to Yelena Federova, who was convicted of murder at age 20 and was sentenced to 12 years.
‘I repeatedly saw beaten women — young and old,’ Federova told Radio Free Europe. ‘They cried, begging for help. I went to [prison director] Yury Kupriyanov to put an end to this madness — end the beatings and uphold the law.
A probe was opened, but went nowhere when Federova failed to produce witnesses.
‘They were afraid to open their mouths again, fearing they’d be killed this time,’ Fedorova said.
Much of what is known in the west about the penal colony conditions in Russia comes from political prisoners, such as Vladimir Putin rival Alexei Navalny, who is currently being imprisoned at Corrective colony No. 2 in the Vladimir Oblast, roughly 60 miles east of Moscow.
It was at Colony No. 2, where the former presidential candidate was allegedly tortured through solitary confinement and sleep deprivation.
Around 520,000 inmates are imprisoned in roughly 680 Russian penal colonies, according to reporting by The New York Times and Associated Press.
Statistics for women’s colonies have not been published by the government, but there are believed to be 60 female penal colonies, the Russia Behind Bars Foundation told Axios.
Within those camps, there are believed to be 39,000 female prisoners.
Inmates face poor sanitation, food shortages, limited healthcare access, and even physical and sexual violence, according to the State Department.
In October, one human rights group, Gulagu.net, claimed to have obtained more than 1,000 videos showing prison officials sexually abusing inmates. Other inmates were forced to abuse prisoners, according to the group.
Even the process of being transferred to a penal colony has been described as ‘cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.’ According to Amnesty International, trips ‘can take from two weeks to a month or more.’