LA Lakers basketball legend LeBron James is joining the chorus of NBA voices “demanding” President Joe Biden act “swiftly and safely” to bring Brittney Griner back from Russia where she has been imprisoned for more than 100 days, as Los Angeles learns the White House is considering a prison swap with Putin that would release Russian international weapons trafficker Viktor Bout in exchange for the WNBA star center.
James Tweeted his support for the detained standout center on Sunday, the same day the Boston Celtics players wore “We Are BG” jerseys at practice before losing to the Golden State Warriors in the second game of the NBA Finals.
Griner plays for the Phoenix Mercury in the WNBA but has supplemented her income by playing with Russian squad Ekaterinaburg since 2015, which is why she traveled to Russia at the start of the Ukraine invasion. She was detained at the airport after Russian authorities claimed they found hashish oil residue in her suitcase.
But Tom Pasquarello, a former DEA official who orchestrated the sting in Thailand that snared Bout on US terrorism charges, said he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin used the high-profile arrest of the star center as an opportunity to force the White House to negotiate the release of Bout, a Kremlin ally with ties to Russian intelligence who is 15 years into a 25 year sentence. Pasquarello, whose name appears on Putin’s most recent list of government officials banned from entering Russia, thinks trading Bout for Griner, and American Paul Whelan, imprisoned in a Russian work camp on espionage charges he steadfastly denied, will set a dangerous precedent for other Americans traveling overseas.
“Our own State Department calls him the epitome of evil,” Pasquarello told Los Angeles. “We’ve got about 3,000 Americans still locked up abroad and we aren’t negotiating for their release. And if I’m not mistaken, I believe that there’s 53 that are considered to be hostages that are locked up overseas or in other words, to put it in, if they’re not hostages, they’re detained illegally. So I just wonder how much of this is for public relations between the White House and Putin as opposed to really what it should be about — national security.
“I ran DEA operations for more than 125 countries. I would be very, very concerned if I was a U.S. diplomat. I’d be very, very concerned if I was a U.S. citizen traveling abroad. I’d be very concerned if I was an expat living overseas. Knowing that at any time that I could be used as a bargaining chip by a hostile nation like Russia.”
Pasquarello was there in May 2008 when Bout was busted as he was negotiating the sale of millions of dollars worth of weapons — including surface-to-air missile systems; armor piercing rocket launchers; AK-47 firearms; millions of rounds of ammunition; Russian spare parts for rifles; anti-personnel land mines; C-4 plastic explosives; night-vision equipment; “ultralight” aircraft that could be outfitted with grenade launchers and missiles; and unmanned aerial vehicles — to FARC, a Colombian narco-terror organization. During the meeting with buyers at a high-end hotel in Bangkok, Bout bragged to an informant wearing a wiretap that he was at war with the US and enjoyed providing the firepower to kill its citizens.
“It was just as if he was the CEO of a big corporation. He’s sitting there in the boardroom of the Sofitel. As the negotiations are going on, we had undercover rooms that were set up, and we’re monitoring the conversation. So we heard live time of what was taking place about the terror that he was hoping to inflict upon Americans,” Pasquarello said.
During the negotiations the Thai Police burst in and threw Bout against a wall, followed by DEA agents in raid jackets, Pasquarello remembered. “He was calm. He was cool. He was collected. It was as if he was getting ready to go into the opera, to a Broadway show was not even a care in the world. When the Royal Thai Police entered into that, you know, the Sofitel penthouse of that conference room, they were all dressed up in a SWAT raid with their submachine guns because they didn’t know what to expect. They don’t know if he had any type of weapons or explosives, or if his bodyguards did.”
It would take three years for Bout to be extradited to the US to face federal trial in the Southern District of New York, where he would be convicted in 2011 for conspiring to kill US nationals, weapons conspiracy charges, and for conspiring to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization. He is currently being held in a medium security federal prison in Marion, Illinois.
Pasquarello said Bout’s sprawling network of planes and his international contacts could mean that he could be back in business within days of a prisoner swap. “He wanted Americans dead when he got arrested in Thailand. You think he’s going to be any happier with us now? His motivation was to get back at, you know, the U.S. His motivation was to kill Americans. I don’t think he was rehabilitated by being in prison. His operations didn’t cease while he was in prison. He still has the ability to go into some of the rogue nations and continue to have the imbalance of justice, or do a weapons drop pretty much anywhere in the world. He hated Americans then. He hates Americans even more now.”
Griner is a trailblazer on and off the basketball court. She came out at 22, just around the time of her entry into professional sports and became the first openly gay athlete to be endorsed by Nike. The State Department has designated her status as “wrongfully detained,” but has not commented on negotiations with Russia about the proposed prisoner swap despite pressure from Lebron James and other high profile athletes and celebrities.
“For over 100 days, BG has faced inhumane conditions in a Russian prison and has been denied communications with her family and loved ones,” James’ company Uninterrupted said in a statement tweeted by the Lakers star. “As a decorated Olympian and member of an elite global sport community, BG’s detention must be resolved out of respect for the sanctity of all sport and for all Americans traveling internationally.”
In April, US Marine Trevor Reed was exchanged during a prisoner swap in Turkey for Russian citizen Konstantin Yaroshenko, a convicted drug trafficker. The exchange took place in Turkey in a swap that President Biden said he did not take lightly. “His safe return is a testament to the priority my Administration places on bringing home Americans held hostage and wrongfully detained abroad. We won’t stop until Paul Whelan and others join Trevor in the loving arms of family and friends.”
Griner was not mentioned in Biden’s statement.
Cherelle Griner, Brittney’s wife, has repeatedly urged Biden to work harder to bring her home on Instagram.
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