A federal jury in New York City on Wednesday found Russian Viktor Bout guilty on four counts of conspiring to kill Americans, selling military-grade weapons and providing other material support to a terrorist organization. The former Soviet Air Force officer is reputed to have earned billions of dollars in the international arms trade.
The jury at the federal courthouse in Manhattan reached its verdict after less than a day, following a three-week trial. Bout was convicted on all four counts of conspiring to sell weapons to U.S. informants posing as rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, whom Bout believed would use the arms to kill American pilots, among others.
Prosecutors used months of secretly recorded telephone calls, messages and meetings to prove that Bout leapt at the chance to earn millions of dollars supplying weapons to FARC, which the United States has designated as a terrorist organization. He was arrested in Thailand in 2008 as he met with the informants, and later was extradited to the United States.
Outside the courthouse, defense attorney Albert Dayan said the “sting” operation was unfair and that Bout remains hopeful.
“He believes that this is not the end, that he still has a chance, that we have a chance. We can appeal to this judge that the verdict was rendered against the weight of the evidence, and then we can also proceed to the United States Court of Appeals. But we are disappointed with this verdict,” Dayan said.
Often called the “Merchant of Death,” after the title of a book about his dealings, Bout sold and delivered weapons to Africa, Afghanistan and the Middle East for nearly 15 years, beginning in the early 1990s. He was the subject of U.N. sanctions in 2004, which asked member states to freeze his assets and deny him transit.
Kathi Austin, a former U.N. arms investigator who has long tracked Bout, says she is pleased with the verdict. “[It is] just a tremendous sense of relief that justice is finally being delivered for a man who has enabled so many wars around the world, so many mass atrocities, terrorism. This is really the closing of the book on the most prolific arms trafficker of our time,” Austin said.
Still, Austin says she wished Bout had been tried for his arms deals and as a war criminal, rather than in an undercover operation in which no weapons were traded.
“It’s my hope in the future that the next type of Viktor Bout or others who may try to take his place, that there will be strong national laws in place, there will be a strong international arms trade treaty so when these activities occur, they will be criminalized and victims will have representation as well in trial,” she said.
The 44-year-old Bout faces 25 years to life in prison when he is sentenced in February by Shira Scheindlin, the same federal judge who presided over his trial.