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 a Colombian rebel group and expressing an intent to kill American pilots.
The allegations came at the opening of the Bout’s trial this week, 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.
The Russian national was the target of an elaborate U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency 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 the Colombian rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
Bout, 44, appeared in a crisp black pin-striped 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 at the American jurors piled into the courtroom, preparing to determine his fate.
Brendan McGuire, the U.S. assistant attorney general, told a federal jury in his opening arguments that the prosecution had amassed an overwhelming trove of evidence, including tape-recorded conversations of Bout negotiating the arms deal.
“This is not a complicated case,” McGuire told the jury, itemizing a shopping list of weapons Bout pledged to supply. “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 lawyer, Albert Dayan, denied that his client had any intention of selling arms to Colombian rebels, but said that he had agreed to discuss arms sales in order 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 his own 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. His dealings were documented in the book “Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible,” by a former Washington Post reporter, Douglas Farah, and Stephen Braun.
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 instructed two paid informants, identified only as Carlos and Ricardo, to draw Bout into talks on a potential arms deal and to lure him outside of Moscow, where he could be apprehended.
The two men made contact with an associate of Bout, Andrew Smulian, who has since pleaded guilty to charges and who is cooperating with federal authorities in the hopes of receiving a lighter sentence.
Bout initially made it clear that he had turned over a new leaf and had no interest in getting back into the business, according to Dayan. But Dayan said his client was pressed to agree to a deal by Smulian, who was short on funds and knew Bout was trying to unload two cargo airplanes.
Bout finally said he would meet with Carlos and Ricardo in Thailand and hammer out the final details. The conversation was tape-recorded.
The prosecutor said that, at the meeting, Bout immediately displayed an “mastery” of the arms trade, identifying the Eastern European supplies, 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.”
“Viktor Bout was given the opportunity to put millions of dollars of weapons [into the hands of] terrorists in order to kill Americans,” McGuire said. “He jumped at the opportunity.”
Dayan said his client was just telling the men what they wanted to hear.
The plan, he said, was “just to sell the plane and walk away. It was a three-way con game.”
“He didn’t walk into the meeting and say, ‘I want to kill Americans.’ He said, ‘Yes, yes they’re my enemies too, just give me $5 million for the planes….The fact is this man never intended to sell arms.”