Republicans aren’t the only lawmakers criticizing President Biden’s prisoner swap with Russia, which freed WNBA player Brittney Griner for Viktor Bout, also known as the “merchant of death.”
Top Democrat Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey also sounded off about the decision, which he called “deeply disturbing.”
“This should be a moment of deep reflection for the United States government to recognize we have a serious problem with hostage-taking of Americans,” Menendez said in a statement. “The Russians and other regimes that take American citizens hostage cannot pretend that there is equivalence between the Brittney Griners of the world and people like Viktor Bout, the so-called ‘Merchant of Death.’ Nothing could be further from the truth, and we cannot ignore that releasing Bout back into the world is a deeply disturbing decision.”
He continued: “We must stop inviting dictatorial and rogue regimes to use Americans overseas as bargaining chips, and we must try to do better at encouraging American citizens against traveling to places like Russia where they are primary targets for this type of unlawful detention.”
Grinner was arrested at a Moscow airport in February after officials said they found vape cartridges and cannabis oil in her bag. She pleaded guilty to the drug charges in Russian court, though she said there “was no intent.”
Bout, on the other hand, has been described by U.S. officials as “one of the most dangerous men on the face of the earth." The Russian weapons trafficker had served 11 years out of a 25-year sentence after he was convicted on terrorism charges in 2011 for his role in selling arms to a Colombian terrorist organization for the purpose of killing Americans.
Menendez also commented on U.S. Marine Paul Whelan's imprisonment on "fictitious" charges of espionage.
“My heart also goes out to the families of other American citizens in Russian prisons and labor camps, including Paul Whelan,” the statement added. “They have my renewed commitment and determination to use the power of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to secure Mr. Whelan’s safe return and to continue fighting for the release of all Russian political prisoners, like Vladimir Kara Murza, and all other unjustly detained Americans.”
Reacting to the news of Grinner's release, Whelan told CNN he was "greatly disappointed" more has not been done on his behalf.
"I was arrested for a crime that never occurred,” he said. “I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here.”