American prosecution against accused Russian arms dealer continues
New York, NY, United States
October 13, 2011 02:37 pm EDT
Crime, Law And Justice, Prosecution, Defendant, Crime, Law And Justice, International Law, Extradition, Unrest, Conflicts And War, Weaponry
Prosecutors continued making their case Thursday that accused arms dealer Viktor Bout used his air cargo business as a cover for illegal weapons sales that incited rebel violence around the world.
Bout is being tried in a federal court in New York on four charges of conspiring to commit terrorism that could result in a life sentence for him.
He has been dubbed the “merchant of death” by African leaders who accuse him of arming rebels in Angola, Sierra Leone, Sudan and Liberia. He also is accused of providing arms to the Taliban while they ruled Afghanistan.
Witnesses against him include a paid informant and a former colleague who pleaded guilty but is cooperating with prosecutors to provide evidence.
Another witness is a former South African military agent who can be heard on tape saying he “mowed down” blacks during his country’s apartheid policies.
The trial is expected through late October.
Bout, 44, is a former Russian air force officer whose extradition to the United States from Thailand was bitterly opposed by the Russian government. He claims to be a legitimate businessman who transported cargo to conflict areas under government contracts.
He was arrested by Thai police in a Bangkok hotel after undercover agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration posed as rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia trying to buy weapons. They secretly recorded their negotiations.
Bout offered to sell them 700 surface-to-air missiles, land mines and ultra-light aircraft that could be fire missiles and grenade-launchers, prosecutors say. He also offered them 5,000 assault rifles with millions of rounds of ammunition.
Bout said he could air drop the weapons into Colombia and offered to sell the undercover agents two airplanes to ship the arms. He said he could train the rebels to use the weapons.
The DEA agents led Bout to believe they wanted the weapons to help Colombian rebels shoot down American military helicopters operating in Colombia.
His statements during the negotiations prompted a charge that he conspired to aid terrorists to kill Americans.
He was held in a high-security prison in Thailand for two years before being extradited to the United States in November 2010.
Bout, pronounced like boot, has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
The head Drug Enforcement Administration agent who organized the sting against Bout called him “one of the most dangerous men on the face of the Earth.”
DEA agent Michael Braun told CBS News, “Those Russian aircraft were built like flying dump trucks. He could move this stuff and drop it with pinpoint accuracy to any desert, to any jungle, to any other remote place in the world. Right into the hands of what I refer to as the potpourri of global scum.”
Bout is believed to have inspired a 2005 Hollywood movie, called Lord of War, that starred Nicolas Cage. The story follows the life story of a Russian arms merchant whose weapons fuel violence and war around the world.
Publicity surrounding the case complicated jury selection on Tuesday in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.
Judge Shira A. Scheindlin asked jurors to sign cards promising not to search the Internet to research Bout.
She was concerned publicity might disqualify them from being impartial.
The judge told jurors, “You may draw no inference” from reports that several governments tried to cripple Bout’s business with financial sanctions.
“You will hear that many years ago Mr. Bout may have been involved in arms trafficking and/or arms transportation in Africa and that activity did not violate U.S. laws,” Scheindlin said.
During opening statements, U.S. Attorney Brendan McGuire said Bout had no reservations about selling weapons to rebels.
“He jumped at the opportunity,” McGuire said. “Why? For the money.”
Prosecutors introduced as evidence a handwritten note that recorded a large weapons order of rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47 machine guns.
“He revealed his complete mastery of every facet of an illegal weapons deal,” McGuire said.
Bout’s attorney, Albert Dayan, admitted his client sold weapons, but said the sales were not illegal.
Bout sat almost expressionless during the jury selection and opening of the prosecution’s arguments. His wife and daughter sat behind him.
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