Democrat Bob Menendez: ‘Deeply Disturbing Decision’ to Release Russian Arms Dealer Viktor Bout

Viktor Bout sits while waiting for his verdict at the detention room at a criminal court in Bangkok, Thailand, Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2009. The Russian arms dealer who once inspired a Hollywood movie is back in the headlines with speculation around a return to Moscow in a prisoner exchange for …
AP Photo/Apichart Weerawong

It is a “deeply disturbing” decision to release Russian arms deal Viktor Bout, Democrat Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) said on Thursday, although he praised the news of former WNBA star Brittney Griner coming back to America as part of the Biden administration’s controversial prisoner swap.

The former WNBA star was arrested in Russia in February and pleaded guilty to drug charges — possession of cannabis vape cartridges — at a Moscow airport. She was ultimately sentenced to nine years in prison for smuggling cannabis into the country. But, she has now been released in turn for a convicted arms dealer, sparking outrage. Even Democrat Sen. Menendez, while welcoming the news of the Olympic champion’s release, expressed concern over the cost of the trade, releasing “the so-called ‘Merchant of Death.’”

“The news this morning of Brittney Griner’s release is a welcomed development toward our collective efforts to secure the return of all those wrongfully detained in Russia,” Menendez said in a statement, explaining that he is joining Griner’s family in relief as she returns to the U.S.

Sep 28, 2021; Washington, DC, USA; Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) during the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs committee hearing with Janet Yellen, Secretary, Department of the Treasury and Jerome Powell, Chairman, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, to examine CARES Act oversight of the Treasury and Federal Reserve, focusing on supporting an equitable pandemic recovery on September 28, 2021. Mandatory Credit: Jack Gruber-USA TODAY

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) on September 28, 2021. (Jack Gruber-USA TODAY)

“To be clear, Ms. Griner should have been released immediately and unconditionally a long time ago. Putin has known that all along. This should be a moment of deep reflection for the United States government to recognize we have a serious problem with hostage-taking of Americans,” Menendez continued, expressing concern over the prisoner swap, deeming the decision to release Bout as “deeply disturbing.”

The Associated Press

WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner is escorted from a courtroom after a hearing in Khimki just outside Moscow, Russia, on August 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Menendez said (emphasis added):

The Russians and other regimes that take American citizens hostage cannot pretend that there is equivalence between the Brittney Griner’s of the world and people like Viktor Bout, the so-called ‘Merchant of Death.’ Nothing could be further from the truth, and we cannot ignore that releasing Bout back into the world is a deeply disturbing decision. We must stop inviting dictatorial and rogue regimes to use Americans overseas as bargaining chips, and we must try do better at encouraging American citizens against traveling to places like Russia where they are primary targets for this type of unlawful detention.

FILE - In this Aug. 23, 2019, file photo, Paul Whelan, a former U.S. marine who was arrested for alleged spying in Moscow on Dec. 28, 2018, stands in a cage as he waits for a hearing in a court room in Moscow, Russia. The Moscow City Court on Monday June 15, 2020, convicted Paul Whelan on charges of espionage and sentenced him to 16 years in maximum security prison colony. Whelan has insisted on his innocence, saying he was set up. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko. File)

In this August 23, 2019, file photo, Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine who was arrested for alleged spying in Moscow stands in a cage as he waits for a hearing in a court room in Moscow, Russia. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Menendez also highlighted the plight of retired Marine Paul Whelan, who remains imprisoned in Russia on spying charges.

“My heart also goes out to the families of other American citizens in Russian prisons and labor camps, including Paul Whelan,” Menendez said.

“They have my renewed commitment and determination to use the power of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to secure Mr. Whelan’s safe return and to continue fighting for the release of all Russian political prisoners, like Vladimir Kara Murza, and all other unjustly detained Americans,” he added.

Indeed, Whelan’s family said they were told beforehand that the prisoner swap would not include the retired Marine.

“That early warning meant that our family has been able to mentally prepare for what is now a public disappointment for us and a catastrophe for Paul,” his brother David Whelan said. “I do not know if he is aware yet, although he will surely learn from Russian media.”


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