A Manhattan federal prosecutor on Wednesday accused Russian arms broker Viktor Bout of seeking to sell millions of dollars in weapons, including 100 surface-to-air missiles, to purported agents of a Colombian rebel group that expressed an intent to kill American pilots.
The allegations came at the opening of Bout’s trial, the culmination of a five-year-long effort by the United States to capture and prosecute one of the world’s most famous alleged arms traffickers.
Bout was the target of an elaborate U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration sting operation that ended with his arrest in March 2008 in Thailand and led to a prolonged legal battle over his extradition. He was accused of seeking to sell the missiles, 20,000 AK-47 rifles, 20,000 fragment grenades, 740 mortars, 350 sniper rifles, and 10 million rounds of ammunition to two federal informants posing as representatives of a Colombian rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
Bout, 44, appeared in a crisp black pinstripe suit, his thick, brown spiky hair trimmed short. His wife and teenage daughter arrived at the courthouse after the trial got underway. He stared intently as the American jurors filed into the courtroom, preparing to determine his fate.
Brendan McGuire, the U.S. assistant attorney general, told a federal jury in his opening statement that the prosecution had amassed overwhelming evidence, including tape-recorded conversations of Bout negotiating the arms deal.
“This is not a complicated case,” McGuire told the jury. “It’s all on tape. . . . This man, Viktor Bout, agreed to provide all of it to a foreign terrorist organization he believed was planning to kill Americans.”
Bout’s attorney, Albert Dayan, denied that his client had any intention of selling arms to Colombian rebels. Dayan said Bout had agreed to discuss arms sales to lure the buyers into paying $5 million for two cargo planes he was trying to unload.
“The simple and very profound truth is that Viktor Bout never wanted, never intended and never was going to sell arms,” Dayan said. “He played a perfect sucker to catch a sucker.”
The trial promises to provide a rare glimpse into the secretive world of arms trafficking. Bout, a former Soviet military adviser in Africa, left the military at the age of 24 and established a freight company in 1991, just as the Soviet Union collapsed, leaving behind a massive supply of Soviet-era cargo planes and surplus weapons.
By the age of 30, according to McGuire, Bout had acquired 30 cargo planes and an almost mythical reputation as a weapons supplier of choice for myriad armed groups in Africa during the 1990s.
Bout’s attorney denied that his client had ever directly brokered an arms deal, saying that he only provided transportation to those who did. “He was paid to transport, and that is what he did,” Dayan said.
The DEA launched an investigation into Bout in late 2006 or 2007, and the agency instructed two paid informants, identified only as Carlos and Ricardo, to draw Bout into talks on a potential arms deal and to lure him out of Moscow, where he could be apprehended.
The two men made contact with an associate of Bout’s, Andrew Smulian, who has since pleaded guilty to charges and who is cooperating with federal authorities.
Dayan said Bout was pressed to agree to a deal by Smulian, who was short on money and knew that Bout was trying to sell two cargo airplanes. Bout finally said he would meet with Carlos and Ricardo in Thailand to work out the final details. The conversation was tape-recorded.
The prosecutor said that, at the meeting, Bout immediately displayed a “mastery” of the arms trade, identifying the Eastern European suppliers, explaining the logistical plans and inventing a cover story to evade detection. He also expressed personal “sympathy” with the men’s cause.
“We’re together, and we have the same enemy,” Bout was recorded as saying. “It’s not business. It’s my fight. I’m fighting the United States for 10 or 15 years.”