Russia releases American marine veterinarian in surprise prisoner exchange

WASHINGTON (AP) – Russia and the United States have carried out an unexpected prisoner exchange at a time of high tension, where on Wednesday they traded with a naval veteran imprisoned by Moscow for a convicted Russian drug smuggler who was serving a long prison sentence in America.

The deal involves Trevor Reedan American imprisoned for almost three years would have been a remarkable diplomatic maneuver even in peacetime, but it was all the more surprising because it was done as Russia’s war with Ukraine have driven relations with the United States to their lowest point in decades.

At the other end of the booty was Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot who had served a 20-year federal sentence for conspiracy to smuggle cocaine into the United States

Even when the Biden administration trumpeted the prey, it made clear that the resolution did not herald a broader breakthrough between the countries. Russian forces are still determined in their attacks on Ukraine, the United States and Western allies continue to impose punitive sanctions and other Americans, including WNBA star Brittney Griner and Michigan corporate security executive Paul Whelan, still imprisoned in Russia.

The exchange, the culmination of lengthy requests from both countries as well as private diplomatic quarrels, took place in Turkey when “the two planes essentially ran up side by side and then came out,” said Reed’s father, Joey.

“I think it’s really going to hit him and us when we finally get to see him and touch him,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Reed, a 30-year-old former Marine from Texas, was arrested in the summer of 2019 after Russian authorities said he assaulted an officer while being driven by police to a police station after a night of heavy drinking. He was later sentenced to nine years in prison, although the US government has described him as wrongfully detained and pressured for his release, while his family has claimed his innocence and expressed concern over his deteriorating health – which included coughing up blood and a hunger strike.

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Even on Wednesday, his parents’ joy was mitigated by the concern they said they felt about his physical appearance. They were hit by his unstable gait, and how thin he looked when TV footage caught him walking, flanked by guards, from a van to the jet.

“He just did not sound like himself,” Reed’s mother, Paula, said of their brief phone call while on the plane. “We just asked him how he was doing and he said, ‘I’m fine.’ “But he always says that, even when he’s not. And he just did not sound like his normal self.”

Reed was on his way back to the United States and traveled with Roger Cartsens, the US Government’s special presidential envoy for hostage affairs.

President Joe Biden, who met in Washington with Reed’s parents last month, praised Reed’s release and noted without elaboration that “the negotiations that enabled us to bring Trevor home required difficult decisions that I do not take lightly. ” The Russian government also reaffirmed the agreement, in which the Foreign Ministry described the exchange as “the result of a long negotiation process.”

A senior Biden administration official warned that the talks were centered on a “discreet set of prisoner issues” and did not represent a change in the US government’s condemnation of Russia’s violence against Ukraine.

“Where we can have discussions on issues of common interest, we will try to talk to the Russians and have a constructive conversation without in any way changing our approach to the horrific violence in Ukraine,” the official told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity during the earth. rules laid down by the administration.

Yaroshenko, for his part, was arrested in Liberia in 2010 and extradited to the United States on drug trafficking charges. The Justice Department has described him as “an experienced international drug smuggler” who conspired to distribute thousands of kilograms of cocaine around the world.

A lawyer for Yaroshenko, who in 2020 unsuccessfully sought to have his client released following compassionate release due to the coronavirus pandemic, did not return an email seeking comments on Wednesday.

Russia had sought Yaroshenko’s return for years, while also rejecting requests from senior US officials to release Reed, who was approaching his 1,000th. day in custody after being convicted after what a U.S. official, Ambassador John Sullivan, called as “ridiculous” evidence.

The prisoner exchange was the most prominent release during the Biden administration of an American who was deemed to have been wrongfully detained abroad, and even came as families of prisoners who have met over the past year with officials from the administration had described the officials as cool to the idea of ​​an exchange.

The US government typically does not embrace such exchanges. It fears it may encourage foreign governments to take additional Americans prisoner as a way to extract concessions. And it is concerned about a potential false equivalence between an unjustly detained American – as US officials believe Reed was – and a properly convicted criminal.

In this case, however, the United States decided that the deal made sense in part because Yaroshenko had already served a large portion of his prison sentence, which has now been converted, a senior official told the AP on condition of anonymity.

In a statement, the Reed family thanked the Biden “for making the decision to bring Trevor home,” other administration officials, and Bill Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. The family said Richardson traveled to Moscow in the hours before the Ukraine war began hoping to secure Reed’s release.

Reed’s release had no immediate impact on the cases of other Americans held by Russia. Laughter, for one, was detained in February after Russian authorities said a search of her bag revealed vape cartridges containing oil from cannabis. Whelan is being held for espionage-related charges, which his family says are false.

Biden said Wednesday, “we will not stop until Paul Whelan and others join Trevor in the loving arms of family and friends.” U.S. officials have described Whelan as wrongfully detained, but have not yet characterized Griner’s case in those terms. Whelan was sentenced and sentenced to 16 years in prison; Laughing awaiting trial.

Back home in Texas, Reeds had a general sense of progress and had even begun cleaning Trevor’s room in preparation for his return and removing papers from his bed so he had a place to sleep.

It was a welcome turn from a month ago when they demonstrated outside the White House for their son’s release, and then pushed their case to a private meeting with Biden.

“We’ve been saying for over a year if we could just talk to the president that we felt we could make this thing happen – and that’s exactly what happened,” Joey Reed said.

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