The trial of a former Soviet Air Force officer and alleged international arms dealer dubbed by security experts the “merchant of death” is underway in New York.
Jury selection wass held in the federal trial of Viktor Bout, a Russian businessman accused of conspiring to sell thousands of military-grade weapons to be used against Americans.
Bout was arrested in Thailand in 2008 after meeting with undercover U.S. agents posing as members of FARC, a Colombian rebel group that the United States has designated a terrorist organization. He reportedly promised to supply them with surface-to-air missiles, machine guns and landmines they said would be used to kill Americans and Colombians.
Bout is charged with four counts including conspiracy to kill Americans and to provide material support to a terrorist organization. He has pleaded not guilty and has called the prosecution a “witch hunt.”
Security and arms-trade experts say Bout had made many millions dealing weapons, often arming both sides of civil wars in African countries, including Angola, Rwanda, Sudan, Congo and Sierra Leone.
A former top anti-terrorism adviser in the Bush administration, Juan Zarate, says the sting operation was the result of a U.S. effort to find a way to bring Bout before a U.S. court. “There is no question that he supplied everything from AK-47s and bullets [ammunition], to attack helicopters in ways that inflamed civil wars and insurgencies, and which violated international sanctions. It is why he was a wanted man both in Europe and in the U.S. and why he is the subject of U.S. prosecution for this particular incident in violation of U.S. law," he said.
Experts say that Bout, a former Soviet military translator, began a private air cargo business in the early 1990s, using disused military planes. In addition to his alleged arms dealing, his planes transported food, humanitarian relief, and even U.N. peacekeepers to some of the same conflict areas where he sold weapons. For a time, the U.S. military contracted with him to fly supplies to troops in Iraq.
Russia’s government has sharply defended Bout and fought his extradition from Thailand. Ron Kuby, a criminal defense lawyer in New York, said that there are legitimate questions about invoking U.S. law to seize a foreign national outside the United States. But he said Russia may have other considerations in mind, as well.
“Russian fear that Mr. Bout has a lot of information about the operation of Russian intelligence services, and some not-so-savory aspects of things that he has colluded with the Russian government in doing, such as arms sales in high-conflict zones," he said.
Bout faces a life sentence if convicted.