Is US considering transferring convicted arms smuggler to Russia?

Former Soviet military intelligence officer Viktor Bout is one of the world’s most notorious weapons dealers. In 2008, Bout, known informally as ‘the merchant of death’, was finally arrested in Bangkok by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration, with the cooperation of the Royal Thai Police. He was eventually extradited to the US and convicted to a 25-year prison term, which he is serving at the Brooklyn Metropolitan Detention Center in New York. Last week, it emerged that the US Bureau of Prisons was about to transfer Bout to the Florence Federal Correctional Facility in Colorado. Widely referred to as ‘Supermax’, the Florence facility houses some of America’s most notorious prison inmates. It seems a proper fit for someone like Bout, who for decades supplied weapons to African warlords, who is accused by the United States of having supplied weapons to the Taliban, and who was arrested while trying to sell arms to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). On Tuesday, however, it was suddenly reported that the Bureau had decided to delay Bout’s transfer to Supermax. Bout’s attorney, Albert Y. Dayan, said he had been notified in a letter that the Bureau was “re-evaluating where to send Bout” and that it was “reconsidering its plan” to send the notorious weapons merchant to the Colorado maximum security facility. As might be expected, Dayan called the news “a credit [to] the Bureau of Prisons and the US Attorney’s office”; but the question, of course, is why did the Bureau decide on the delay, and what does the US Department of Justice know about it? The answer could perhaps be found in an interview given on Wednesday by no other than the US Attorney General, Eric Holder. Speaking in Russia, Holder said for the first time that “the US may consider an application to transfer Viktor Bout to Russia” so he can serve his prison term there. Holder was speaking to a “select number of Russian media outlets” consisting of representatives from Vesti24 TV, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, and the government-linked Itar-TASS news agency. He told the reporters that Russia would first have to file an application with the US Department of Justice; but this was the first time that a US official has publicly made an opening to Russia, which has said it does not intend to give up on the fate of Viktor Bout. Could it be that Washington and Moscow are secretly exploring the possibility of swapping Bout for an American agent held in a Russian prison? Longtime readers may remember that intelNews speculated last year that the US might exchange Bout for Andrei Klychev, who is currently in prison in Russia. Klychev, 49, worked at Rosatom, Russia’s Nuclear Energy State Corporation, when he was arrested in 2010 on espionage charges. He was given an 18-year sentence in a closed-door trial, for spying on behalf of the United States. The US Bureau of Prisons has refused to comment on Bout. Its spokeswoman, Traci Billingsley, told The Associated Press that the Bureau’s policy was not to discuss information about “the designation or future institution assignment of any inmate”.

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