Saudi leader brokered Griner swap after U.S. ended Khashoggi suit

By Art Moore

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman taken in Russia in 2019 at a signing ceremony for Russian-Saudi documents (Wikimedia Commons)
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Russia at a signing ceremony in 2019 (Wikimedia Commons)

The White House on Thursday denied the claim by Saudi Arabia and the UAE that the two Middle East nations helped broker the deal between Russia and the United States that brought WNBA player Brittney Griner home in exchange for a Russian arms dealer known as the “merchant of death” who was convicted of attempting to murder Americans.

The exchange came two days after a U.S. federal judge rejected a lawsuit against Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the murder of Washington Post journalist James Khashoggi, submitting to the Biden administration’s claim that the prince was legally immune in the case.

Arab News reported the Saudi leader “led mediation efforts.”

Biden press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre insisted at the daily briefing “there was no mediation involved,” stating Russia and the United States were the only nations at the bargaining table.

However, Saudi Arabia and the UAE said in a joint statement that the “success of the mediation efforts was a reflection of the mutual and solid friendship between their two countries and the United States of America and the Russian Federation.”

The deal, the statement said, “highlighted the important role played by the leaderships of the two brotherly countries in promoting dialogue between all parties.”

In the lawsuit against Prince Mohammed, U.S. District Judge John D. Bates on Tuesday accepted the Biden administration’s motion to shield the Saudi leader despite what he called “credible allegations of his involvement in Khashoggi’s murder.”

Griner was arrested Feb. 17 at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport for possessing marijuana vaping materials and later was sentence to nine years in prison.

At the White House on Thursday, President Biden said 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.

Held ‘hostage’ by Russia
Amid outrage over U.S. Marine veteran Paul Whelan remaining in a Russian prison over espionage charges the U.S. regards as unfounded, Biden insisted it was “was not a choice of which American to bring home.”

“Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s, and while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up,” Biden said. “We will never give up.”

Whelan, who has served nearly four years of a 16-year sentence in a Russian penal colony, told CNN in a phone call he is a “hostage” of Russia.

“I am greatly disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release, especially as the four-year anniversary of my arrest is coming up,” Whelan said.

“I was arrested for a crime that never occurred. I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here.”

Whelan said he hoped the Biden administration “would do everything they could to get me home, regardless of the price they might have to pay at this point.”

“I would say that if a message could go to President Biden, that this is a precarious situation that needs to be resolved quickly,” he said.

“My bags are packed. I’m ready to go home. I just need an airplane to come and get me,’ said Whelan. “It’s quite obvious that I’m being held hostage.”

Independent investigative reporter Jordan Schachtel pointed out that NBC News quietly edited a report that contradicts the White House’s claim that there was no opportunity to free Whelan.

The original NBC report – archived here – said “the Kremlin gave the White House the choice of either Griner or Whelan — or none.”

The current version reads “the Kremlin ultimately gave the White House the choice of either Griner or no one after different options were proposed.”

Further, NBC cited Whelan’s Russian lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, saying there was a choice.

NBC said that according to Zherebenkov “the deal was an exchange of ‘one to one,’ and that choosing Griner, 32, appeared ‘more humane’ because she is a woman and an Olympic champion, while Whelan was in the military and it is ‘easier for him to be in custody.'”

Why did Russia get a ‘better deal’?
During the White House briefing Thursday, Fox News reporter Peter Doocy asked why Russia got a “better deal,” giving up a professional athlete for a prolific arms dealer convicted of trying to killing Americans.

“The professional athlete is also an American citizen,” Jean-Pierre said, after repeating Biden’s claim that the only choice was to bring home one American or none.

The Russian arms trafficker, Bout, was one of the world’s most wanted men when he was arrested in 2008. From a base in the Gulf emirate of Sharjah, he built an arms trafficking empire, selling weaponry to rogue states, rebel groups and warlords in Africa, Asia and South America.

See Jean-Pierre’s response to Doocy:

In a “60 Minutes Overtime” interview, Mike Braun, former chief of operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, described Bout as “one of the most dangerous men on the face of the earth.”

See the “60 Minutes” segment:

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