Viktor Bout, the former Russian military officer convicted of illegal arms trafficking in U.S. courts in 2012, and who was serving a 25-year prison sentence, has had his sentence commuted and is being repatriated as part of a prisoner exchange that freed United States basketball star Brittney Griner from prison in Russia.
Bout, nicknamed the “Merchant of Death,” started an air freight business in the years after the fall of the Soviet Union, which prosecutors alleged he used to transport military-grade weapons around the world, often supplying arms to combatants on opposing sides of the same conflicts.
In an indictment of Bout issued in February 2010, the U.S. Justice Department alleged, “Bout, an international weapons trafficker since the 1990s, has carried out a massive weapons-trafficking business by assembling a fleet of cargo airplanes capable of transporting weapons and military equipment to various parts of the world, including Africa, South America, and the Middle East. The arms that Bout has sold or brokered have fueled conflicts and supported regimes in Afghanistan, Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Sudan.”
The Russian government has long claimed that Bout was wrongly convicted and unjustly imprisoned. He had, most recently, been held in a federal prison facility in the city of Marion in the U.S. state of Illinois.
Griner had spent 10 months in prison in Russia after being arrested at a Moscow airport with a small amount of cannabis oil in an electronic cigarette cartridge in her luggage. Sentenced to nine years in prison, she was recently transferred to a prison labor camp.
Little is known for certain about Bout’s early life, other than that he grew up in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, and was conscripted into the Russian military at age 18. He is believed to be multilingual, and is thought to have studied at the Military Institute of Foreign Languages in Moscow. The institute has close ties to Russian intelligence services.
Bout appears to have left military service around the time of the breakup of the Soviet Union, and moved to the United Arab Emirates, where he purchased four Soviet-era Antonov-8 cargo planes and established an air freight firm called Air Cess.
Bout’s fleet of planes eventually numbered around 60, and much of his business was legitimate. According to Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun, authors of the book Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible, Bout’s contracts included some with the U.S. government for ferrying reconstruction supplies into Afghanistan and some with the United Nations for delivering humanitarian aid.
Active in Africa
It was arms dealing, however, that made Bout both internationally famous and extremely wealthy. In the years following the breakup of the Soviet Union, vast quantities of military weapons appeared on the black market, and prosecutors and journalists have produced evidence that Bout transported weapons to conflict zones around the globe, often to parties that were subject to international arms embargoes.
Bout was especially active in Africa, and in the 1990s is believed to have supplied arms to both the government of Angola and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) who were fighting against it.
Similarly, Bout is believed to have supplied arms to both sides of the civil war in what was then Zaire, and is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, and to have sold arms used in conflicts in Rwanda, Sudan, and Somalia.
Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia who was convicted of war crimes for his role in the civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone, is also believed to have been one of Bout’s clients.
‘Truly a monster’
David M. Crane, the founding chief prosecutor of the U.N. Special Court for Sierra Leone, saw the results of Bout’s arms dealing in West Africa up close.
“He was truly a monster in his own right,” Crane told VOA. “This is someone who spread his arms and ammunition around the world, in very dark corners of the world, causing pain and suffering wherever he went.”
Crane, who went on to found the non-profit Global Accountability Network, which seeks justice for the victims of war crimes and crimes against humanity, said that the destruction wrought in Sierra Leone by the forces Bout armed was extensive.
“He was the main supplier of arms and ammunition…to that terrible conflict in West Africa, which saw the murder, rape, maiming and mutilation of over 1.2 million human beings,” Chase said.
While Africa may have been Bout’s primary focus, he was also active in other parts of the world. For example, he is believed to have sold weapons and equipment to both the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Northern Alliance that opposed it in the late 1990s.
By the late 2000s, Bout was subject to multiple arrest warrants around the world, and rarely left Russia, where the government of Vladimir Putin refused to extradite him.
In 2008, however, he was lured to Bangkok, Thailand, for a meeting with people he believed to be representatives of Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC, the rebel group that for decades sought to overthrow the Colombian government before a 2016 peace accord. FARC was, at the time, designated as a terrorist group by the U.S. government.
In fact, Bout was actually meeting with informants for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, who recorded him offering to sell them hundreds of surface-to-air missiles and other heavy weaponry. In the conversation, Bout acknowledged that the missiles, in particular, were to be used to bring down U.S. planes flying drug interdiction missions.
Bout was arrested on the spot by Thai law enforcement, and two years later he was extradited to the U.S., where he was charged with several crimes, including breaking weapons embargoes, conspiring to kill U.S. officials, and various money laundering and wire fraud charges.
In 2012, Bout was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
In a statement on Thursday, the Russian Foreign Ministry characterized the negotiations that led to Bout’s release as long, with the U.S. resisting demands that he be made part of the deal.
"Washington was categorically refusing to engage in dialogue on putting the Russian national on the exchange scheme,” the foreign ministry told the news outlet TASS. "Nevertheless, the Russian Federation continued to actively work towards the release of our fellow countryman."
In remarks announcing Griner’s release Thursday morning, U.S. President Joe Biden did not mention Bout, but criticized Russia for holding the basketball star. He said that Griner “lost months of her life [and] experienced a needless trauma.”
Biden also referred to another high-profile American detainee in Russia, former Marine Paul Whelan, who has been held there for four years.
“We’ve not forgotten about Paul Whelan, who has been unjustly detained in Russia for years,” Biden said. “This was not a choice of which American to bring home….Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s. And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We will never give up.”