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Russia says it's ready to talk about prisoner trade for WNBA star Brittney Griner

By A.L. Lee
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Russia says it's ready to talk about prisoner trade for WNBA star Brittney Griner
Two-time Olympic gold medalist and WNBA star Brittney Griner is escorted at a court near Moscow, Russia, on Wednesday. The Kremlin said Friday that it's ready to discuss a possible deal to send Griner back to the U.S. in exchange for a Russian arms dealer. Photo by Yuri Kochetkov/EPA-EFE

Aug. 5 (UPI) -- The Russian government said on Friday that it's ready to discuss a prisoner swap that would send WNBA star Brittney Griner back to the United States, but cautioned that any such deal should be negotiated in private.

The 31-year-old Griner was convicted on drug charges Thursday and sentenced to nine years in a Russian penal colony. The women's basketball star was arrested at a Moscow airport in February after two vape cartridges containing cannabis oil were found in her luggage.

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For weeks, U.S. officials have been working diplomatic channels in an effort to win Griner's release, but had to allow the full legal process to play out. Griner pleaded guilty to the charges in a bid for leniency from the court.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Friday that Russian President Vladimir Putin is "ready to discuss" the idea of a prisoner exchange with U.S. President Joe Biden under terms that have been previously established.

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"There is a special channel that has been agreed upon by the presidents, and no matter what anyone says publicly, this channel remains relevant," Lavrov said at a meeting with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Cambodia, according to CNN.

There have been reports of a possible prisoner exchange that would trade Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who's jailed in the United States, for Griner and American Paul Whelan, who was jailed on spying charges in 2018. Russian officials said this week that those talks have been ongoing, but that "a concrete result" was not yet in place.

Bout is serving a 25-year prison sentence in Illinois for selling weapons that U.S. officials say were intended to kill Americans. He was imprisoned in 2010 and he was partly the basis for the 2005 Nicolas Cage film Lord of War.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov cautioned the United States on Friday against bargaining for Brittney Griner's release in the press. File Photo courtesy Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service via EPA-EFE

For his part, Biden said Thursday that he'd "work tirelessly" and "pursue every possible avenue" to free Griner and Whelan. Relatives of both Griner and Whelan have also called on Biden to return them to the United States.

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In his remarks Friday, Lavrov was terse in saying Russia was ready to talk and accused Washington of leaking the swap to the press to pressure the Kremlin into accepting the trade for Bout. He added that "public diplomacy" could potentially derail the talks.

"If the Americans decide to resort to public diplomacy again and make loud announcements ... this is their business, their problem," he said according to CNN.

RELATED WNBA's Brittney Griner back in Russia court amid hopes for possible prisoner swap

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who spoke on the phone with Lavrov last week, seemed to brush off tensions with his Russian counterpart. He said at the ASEAN summit in Cambodia that he's "prepared to engage through channels we've established ... and we'll be pursuing that."

Blinken has said previously that "a substantial offer" had been made for Griner, who possessed less than 2 grams of cannabis oil when she was arrested in February. The substance is illegal in Russia, even though she has a medical prescription.

Griner was sentenced Thursday to serve hard time in a Russian penal colony, which is a lockup similar to Soviet-era gulags where prisoners are regularly subjected to harsh conditions and propaganda.

"I made an honest mistake and I hope that in your ruling that it doesn't end my life here," Griner told the Russian court before her sentencing on Thursday.

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