Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman helped broker the dramatic prisoner swap between the U.S. and Moscow that sprang WNBA star Brittney Griner from a Russian gulag, days after the Biden administration helped spike a lawsuit against the Saudi ruler.
MBS, as the Saudi leader is known, and United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed “led mediation efforts” between the two nations whose diplomatic ties have been badly frayed by the war in Ukraine, according to Arab News. Griner was traded for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who plotted to help South American terrorists attack the U.S.
“The ministries said the success of the mediation efforts was a reflection of the mutual and solid friendship between their two countries and the United States and Russia,” read a joint statement from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. “They also highlighted the important role played by the leaderships of the two brotherly countries in promoting dialogue between all parties.”
#BREAKING: #SaudiArabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and #UAE President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed led mediation efforts to release US, #Russian prisoners — joint statementhttps://t.co/HJ6hgi3XFT pic.twitter.com/UmfegX8ZDk
— Arab News (@arabnews) December 8, 2022
President Joe Biden did not mention details of the negotiation in a Thursday morning announcement of the swap in which he condemned Russia’s handling of Griner, who was arrested February 17 after being caught with marijuana vaping materials at a Moscow airport.
“[Griner] endured mistreatment at a show trial in Russia with characteristic grit and incredible dignity. She represents the best America – the best about America,” Biden said from the White House, where he was joined by Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner.
U.S. officials did not directly confirm the role of MBS in securing Griner’s release
“In the course of getting to this happy result with respect to Brittney, and in the course of working to secure the release of Paul, as we continue to do, we have and I’m sure we’ll continue to lean on partners around the world to work this through with us, to give us their ideas, and to impress upon the Russians how important it is to us to resolve these sorts of cases,” a senior administration official told The Associated Press. “And we appreciate when those partners do help us. And I’ll leave it there.”
Relations between Saudi Arabia and Biden administration have been strained, but Biden last week said MBS could not be sued in U.S. courts for his alleged role in ordering the 2018 murder and dismemberment inside a Turkish consulate of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and ardent critic of the Saudi ruler. Khashoggi’s widow had sued MBS in Washington, D.C., federal court.
“Mohammed bin Salmon, the Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, is the sitting head of government and, accordingly, is immune from this suit,” read a motion filed last week by the Department of Justice.
District of Columbia District Judge John Bates said on Tuesday that he had no choice but to dismiss the case despite what he said were “credible allegations of his involvement in Khashoggi’s murder.”
It was not known if the Biden administration’s move to shield MBS affected the Saudi leader’s role in brokering the prisoner swap.
The U.S. had hoped to win the release of Paul Whelan, a Michigan man and former Marine jailed in Russia since December 2018 on espionage charges that the U.S. government said are baseless. But the deal set to be announced on Thursday was a one-for-one, sources said.
Whelan’s brother, David Welan, said in a statement that his family is “glad that Brittney Griner is on her way home,” but said the family remains heartbroken that Paul Whelan remains imprisoned.
“Despite the possibility that there might be an exchange without Paul, our family is still devastated,” David Whelan said. “I can’t even fathom how Paul will feel when he learns. Paul has worked so hard to survive nearly 4 years of this injustice. His hopes had soared with the knowledge that the US government was taking concrete steps for once towards his release. He’d been worrying about where he’d live when he got back to the U.S.”
Bout, a Russian national with ties to President Vladimir Putin, was arrested on terrorism charges in 2008 by Thai police working with U.S. authorities and Interpol. He was extradited to the U.S. in 2010 and later convicted in Manhattan federal court of smuggling arms including anti-aircraft missiles to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) for use against U.S. forces. He was serving a minimum of 25 years in prison at the federal penitentiary in Marion, Illinois.