After months of internal debate, the Biden administration has offered to exchange Viktor Bout, a convicted Russian arms trafficker serving a 25-year prison sentence in Illinois, as part of a potential deal to secure the release of two Americans held by Russia: Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, CNN reported.
Sources told CNN that the plan to trade Bout for Whelan and Griner received the backing of President Joe Biden after being under discussion since earlier this year. Biden's support for the swap overrides opposition from the Department of Justice, which is generally against prisoner trades.
The families of Whelan, who has been held by Russia for alleged espionage since 2018, and WNBA star Griner, jailed in Moscow for drug possession since February, have urged the White House to secure their release, including via a prisoner exchange if necessary.
On July 27, Griner testified at her drug trial in Russia that an interpreter translated only a fraction of what was said during questioning when she was detained at Moscow's airport in February and that officials told her to sign documents without explaining what they said, ESPN reported.
In her first testimony in the trial under questioning from the prosecution, Griner also said that besides the poor translation at the airport, she received neither an explanation of her rights nor access to a lawyer during the initial hours of her detention.
Griner added that she used a translation app on her phone to get a basic idea of what she was told.
Griner faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted. Trials in Russia proceed even after a guilty plea and there has been speculation that her admission was a bid to move the legal process along in hopes of a possible prisoner swap. She recently pled guilty to cannabis possession but added there was no criminal intent.
Her lawyer, Maria Blagovolina, told reporters after the July 27 session that Griner "repeatedly underlined that she had no intention to bring the forbidden substances into Russia.''