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Opinion: The man on the other side of Brittney Griner’s prisoner swap

Brittney Griner’s return is cause for celebration — but what about the man who was traded for her?

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Viktor Bout addresses the party congress in Moscow, Russia.

Viktor Bout, who was swapped for WNBA star Brittney Griner last week and who joined Russia’s Liberal Democratic Party, addresses the party congress in Moscow, Russia, on Monday, Dec. 12, 2022.

Aleksandr Sivov, Press Service of Liberal Democratic Party of Russia via Associated Press

“Without justice, courage is weak,” Ben Franklin wrote.

Release of celebrity athlete Brittney Griner from a Russian prison is welcome worldwide. What of the other half of that exchange equation?

Viktor Bout, labeled “The Merchant of Death,” was traded to free Griner from the prison. A New York City jury convicted Bout in 2011 for trying to sell arms to terrorists targeting Americans.

Bout was seized in Thailand in a sting operation orchestrated by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. The Thai government initially vetoed extradition, reflecting strong pressures from Russia. The United States government overcame that.

Bout, a former Soviet army officer, became rich and feared for dealing in weapons and drugs on a vast scale. The book “Merchant of Death” documents his extraordinary career. Authors Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun provide details regarding a global trail marked in blood. Wholesale death literally was his profession. Bout’s arrest in a luxury hotel was a victory for basic morality and common decency as well as law enforcement.

The criminal organization FARC controlled extensive territory in Colombia. Bout’s fleet of aircraft flew in guns and ammunition and ferried out drugs for sale. The arms reportedly originated in Kazakhstan and other parts of Central Asia. The Merchant is also accused of dealing with al Qaeda and the Taliban, though he has gone to some lengths to deny these charges.

Initially based in Russia, Bout moved operations to Belgium, then the United Arab Emirates. For years, he kept just ahead of a comprehensive global law-enforcement effort to take him down. His conviction indicates the global rule of law is growing.

Also regarding large-scale killers, in March 2016, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) convicted Radovan Karadžić of genocide. He is responsible for a massacre of approximately 8,000 men and boys in Srebrenica in 1995.

At the time, he was President of the Bosnia Serb Republic (Republika Srpska), a territory seeking to join Serbia. The ethnic wars of this region went on from 1992 to 1995, and involved the first war crimes in Europe since World War II.

In July 2011, Serbia government officials arrested Goran Hadžić. He was a principal leader of Croatia’s Serbs during the ethnically based war and mass murders in the Balkans during the 1990s.

Hadžić was captured at Fruška Gora Mountain north of Belgrade. Before indictment in 2004, he lived relatively openly in the northern Serbia city of Novi Sad, despite a price on his head.

United Nations officials joined representatives of the international judicial tribunal overseeing Balkan war crimes trials in welcoming this benchmark event. This represented closure to the armed conflict along with confirmation of the rule of law in an historically troubled, unstable region of the world.   

With Hadžić’s arrest, all 161 individuals indicted for war crimes by the ICTY had been captured. In 2008, accused Serb war criminal Momčilo Jovanović was captured while visiting a graveyard in the village of Vitomirica in Kosovo.

The government of Serbia deserves credit for arresting nine suspects during the first decade of the twenty-first century. Serbia initiated the ethnic bloodshed of the 1990s, but today provides positive leadership.

At the same time, ethnic nationalism remains strong. Karadžić and other leaders of the Balkan fighting are heroes to some.      

Franklin and the other Founding Fathers of the United States understood the rule of law can be difficult, painful, slow and uncertain. Yet today, reasonably fair law-enforcement expands.

Long-term, Viktor Bout’s world is shrinking.

Arthur I. Cyr is author of “After the Cold War.” Contact acyr@carthage.edu