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US Trial of Alleged Arms Dealer Opens in New York

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Carolyn Weaver

The trial of a former Soviet Air Force officer and alleged international arms dealer dubbed a "merchant of death" by security experts is underway in New York.

Police in Thailand arrested Russian businessman Viktor Bout in 2008.  His trial in New York opened with prosecutors and defense lawyers painting sharply different pictures of the former Soviet military officer.  

Bout is accused of conspiring to sell thousands of military-grade weapons. including surface-to-air-missiles, explosives,  and grenades.

Federal prosecutor Brendan McGuire told the court that Bout had quote, "jumped at the opportunity" to make millions selling arms to FARC, a Colombian rebel organization that he believed would use them, in part, to shoot down U.S. helicopters.   He alleged that Bout had said Americans were his enemies too.

Federal agent William S. Brown testified Bout's arrest in Thailand came after he met with undercover agents posing as members of FARC, which the U.S. has designated as a terrorist organization.

Bout maintains his innocence and says he was entrapped.  He was extradited to the U.S. after a lengthy court battle.

Bout's attorney, Albert Dayan, told the court his client was lured to the meeting on the hopes of selling two cargo airplanes he owned.   Dayan said Bout was never an arms dealer, only a transporter, and that he only promised to include weapons to promote the airplane sale.

Douglas Farah is co-author of Merchant of Death, a book that helped bring Bout to wide attention. He says Bout was the most successful illegal weapons trafficker ever, often arming both sides of African conflicts in the 1990s.

"…Fueling the wars around Africa, then eventually Afghanistan and then into Latin America and elsewhere," said Farah.  "I think what's historic about his arrest is that it was one of the first times, and particularly the Drug Enforcement Administration went after someone who was tangentially linked to narcotics, but fundamentally accused of violating weapons embargoes and gross human rights abuses that flowed from those weapons sales."

A U.N. Security Council resolution from 2004 asked member states to refuse Viktor Bout transit and to freeze his assets.  Kathi Austin is with the Conflict Awareness Network, a group that has tracked Bout for a long time.

"What's alarming to me is that Viktor Bout has actually trafficked weapons before into conflict areas, he's broken U.S. domestic law, he has actually trafficked and broken other laws and has violated U.N. sanctions, and Viktor Bout is not being held accountable for those particular real crimes, where there were real victims," said Austin.

Bout's wife, Alla, spoke to reporters after the trial opened. Asked if her husband was capable of the crimes he is accused of, she called him a very talented "maverick" businessman.

"So, he can compromise on some issues. I cannot judge what really happened in this case, but as I know him very well, from the point of view of morals, the charges are absurd," said  Alla Bout.

Bout faces life in prison if convicted on the four charges, which include conspiracy to kill Americans and to provide material support to a terrorist organization.

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