News / Asia

Three Questions: Prosecuting the 'Merchant of Death'

Suspected Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout sits in a holding cell on 8 March 2008, following an appearance at Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand.
Suspected Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout sits in a holding cell on 8 March 2008, following an appearance at Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand.

Viktor Bout was reputed to be one of the biggest illegal arms dealers in history until he was arrested in a U.S.-led sting operation in 2008. The 43-year-old Russian national allegedly tried to sell missiles and other weapons to U.S. agents posing as members of Colombia's notoriously violent rebel group, FARC.

Since then, he has been fighting extradition to the United States from his prison cell in Thailand. On Tuesday, a Bangkok court dropped money laundering and wire fraud charges against Bout, the so-called "Merchant of Death," removing a key legal obstacle that had stopped Thailand from sending him to the United States.

VOA discussed Bout's case with William Hartung, Director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New America Foundation. Hartung says Victor Bout shrewdly capitalized on the worldwide surplus of arms at the end of the Cold War, taking advantage of his military contacts and loose international regulations to build an international, full-service arms dealing business.

In terms of why the United States wants to get their hands on him, why they want to extradite him here, what is the U.S. interested in learning from him?

"Well, I think to some degree the more that can be learned about illicit arms networks, criminal networks and what's happening with guns and other equipment left over from the Cold War, the better.  If the United States is going to try to have influence in places like Somalia, if it's going to curb, or otherwise, try to quiet conflicts in places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo and elsewhere, the more they can learn about these networks, the better.  And, of course, they will also get access to some former Soviet weapons. But I think they're pretty well informed on that stuff, so that would be a secondary interest, if at all."

How important is it are these sort of series of arrest of major arms traffickers, like Viktor Bout.  In an industry that makes an estimated $60 billion in a bad year, is any one person really going to make a difference?

"Well I think because Viktor Bout is kind of the 'King of the Hill' in terms of illicit weapons trade, I think, prosecuting him would have not only a symbolic effect but a practical effect.  And the question is whether similar prosecutions can be pursued against other big dealers.  It has been difficult because of conflicting laws in different countries, because of the ability of these people to find sanctuary in places that do not want to have them extradited. There has been a whole series of legal and practical obstacles to doing these prosecutions.  So, I think if they can show it can be done in the case of Viktor Bout, the ideal would be that some of that same political will and some of those same techniques could be applied to getting some of these other dealers out of the business. You know, ultimately, it's true there are enough people out there who know how to do this that one arrest is not going to make the difference. I really think it depends on what they do from here.  Is there a concerted effort to go after dealers more generally."

And is there a more concerted effort now to pursue arms traffickers?

"I think it's too early to tell. You know, I'm hoping that if they prosecute Bout, that it will provide some impetus for U.S. and other governments to go after other dealers... because it will demonstrate that it's possible to do so and that you can overcome the legal and other obstacles to doing this sort of thing."

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