Brittney Griner freed: US swaps WNBA star for “Merchant of Death” – National & International News – THU 8Dec2022



Brittney Griner freed: US swaps WNBA star for “Merchant of Death”. “Tripledemic” of flu, RSV, COVID strains hospitals. Iran carries out first execution connected with headscarf protests.




Brittney Griner freed: US swaps WNBA star for “Merchant of Death”

WNBA star Brittney Griner is now on her way home to the US after months as a Russian prisoner. President Biden, joined at the White House by Griner’s wife Cherelle Griner, announced that the US had reached a prisoner swap deal with Russia. Russia is releasing Griner in exchange for the US releasing the notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

Griner arrived in Moscow in February where she plays for a professional women’s basketball team during the US off season. Police arrested her at the airport after finding vape cannisters in her bag containing hashish oil. Griner has a US prescription for the hash oil which she uses for pain management. However, marijuana is illegal in Russia in all its forms. 

The case received a great deal of media attention as Griner’s arrest coincided with the build-up of Russian military assets on Ukraine’s border. Once Russia invaded, many suspected that Russia had detained Griner to use her as a pawn in negotiations with the West.

Griner appeared in a Russian court over the summer. Despite pleading guilty to smuggling in a bid for leniency, she received a 9-year sentence in one of Russia’s notorious penal colonies.

Griner’s family and fans met today’s news of her release with elation. However, the family of another American imprisoned in Russia, Paul Whelan, were disappointed that Whelan was not also coming home. Whelan is a former US Marine who was arrested in Russia in 2020 on espionage charges. President Biden said the US has not given up on bringing Whelan home, but said that Russia “unfairly” considered Whelan’s case as being different to Griner’s. 

Who is Viktor Bout?

During the 1990s and early 2000s, Viktor Bout earned himself the nickname “Merchant of Death”. He was an international arms dealer suspected of having deep ties to the Russian government. He built a notorious reputation as someone who could obtain, sell, and move military-grade hardware to anyone, anywhere in the world for the right price. Bout would even sell his high-grade weapons to both sides in an armed conflict. His wares helped to fuel deadly conflicts in Africa, particularly during civil wars in Angola, DR Congo, and Sierra Leone. The 2005 film “Lord of War” starring Nicholas Cage was loosely based on Bout.

After an elaborate sting operation, US authorities arrested Bout in 2008 over a conspiracy to sell weapons to Colombian rebels to kill Americans. He was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison.

Securing Bout’s release has been a high priority for the Kremlin and Putin’s government has raised the possibility in negotiations with the US many times. It’s not clear whether Bout was himself working for the Russian government, but many think it likely as he was able to easily procure the latest in Russian weapons and even combat aircraft.

US security analysts believe it’s unlikely that Bout will once again represent a danger once he’s released. However, Bout is only 55 (we think) and if Putin is backing him, it doesn’t seem outside the realm of possibility that he could go right back to arms dealing on a mass scale.

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“Tripledemic” of flu, RSV, COVID straining hospitals

Doctors are raising the alarm as cases of flu, COVID and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) are spiking across the country. Unlike during much of the COVID pandemic, children are proving to be especially vulnerable, especially to RSV. Pediatric units in major cities across the country are full to capacity, with many young children and even infants on ventilators. Many children are coming in with RSV and other infections at the same time.

RSV is a virus that commonly affects people in the winter months. However, infections began rising unusually early this year. Following the Thanksgiving holidays, cases of flu, COVID and RSV all predictably rose. Public health officials are urging people to get their flu vaccines and COVID boosters and to go back to social distancing and mask wearing to avoid overwhelming hospitals over the holidays.

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Iran carries out first execution connected with headscarf protests

When Iran’s attorney general hinted over the weekend that the country’s morality police might have disbanded, some observers wondered whether this meant the regime was attempting to assuage the growing protest movement. In the three months since a 22-year-old woman died in the custody of the morality police, the protest has taken on revolutionary overtones. However, the protests have continued, as has the state’s brutal police response to them.

Today Iran carried out the first execution known to be connected with the protest movement. Mohsen Shekari, 23, was hanged after being convicted of “warring against God”. Shekari took part in some of the earliest protests. He was arrested for allegedly stabbing and wounding a member of a pro-government militia during a demonstration. He was also accused of blocking a road with his motorcycle. Iran state television aired footage of Shekari’s confession, which rights groups believe was coerced. Shekari was visibly bruised in the recording.

Shekari was one of 21 people facing charges connected with the demonstrations which carry the possibility of the death penalty. Iran’s security forces have killed hundreds of protesters outright, many of them children.

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