Arms dealer may get life sentence
VIKTOR Bout, the convicted Russian arms dealer described as "the Merchant of Death", may be spending the rest of his days in a federal prison despite his lawyer's claims that he is an innocent victim of an "outrageous" US government sting operation.
At a month-long trial last October, the 45-year-old Bout was found guilty of agreeing to sell weapons to a Colombian terrorist group seeking to kill Americans. Yesterday, he faced a minimum sentence of 25 years, and possibly life.
The judge's sentence will bring down the curtain on a tangled and sinister story spanning five continents and featuring some of the nastiest conflicts of the past 20 years, from the Middle East to Africa and Afghanistan.
Trained in the GRU, the former Soviet military intelligence service, Bout began his career in the arms trading business in earnest around 1990. By the end of the decade, he was a multimillionaire, shipping weapons around the world in a fleet of 30 aircraft.
By the early 2000s, the United Nations and the US had imposed sanctions against the man whom trial prosecutors called a "transnational criminal" who was "ready, willing and able" to arm terrorists and tyrants of every hue. Such was Bout's notoriety that he inspired the arms dealer played by Nicolas Cage in the 2005 film Lord of War.
His downfall began in 2007, when the US Drug Enforcement Administration launched an investigation. It set up a scheme to lure him into agreeing to sell Russian ground-to-air missiles and other weapons to agents posing as representatives of the Colombian insurgent group Farc, whose operations were largely financed by drug trafficking.
Farc has long been classified by the US as a terrorist organisation, and Washington has regularly dispatched special force and intelligence units to help the Colombian police. By committing to sell weapons to the group, Bout opened himself to charges of conspiring to kill American citizens - charges which under US law can be brought against foreign citizens in foreign countries.
In 2008, drug enforcement agents lured Bout out of Russia to Thailand, where they bugged the Bangkok hotel room where the deal was settled. He was arrested and, despite intense pressure on the Thai authorities from Moscow, was extradited to the US in 2010. Bout has maintained he was just a businessman, who fell victim to a vendetta by the American government.
"I did nothing in my mind that qualifies as a crime," he told The New Yorker in a recent interview.
In a final court memo, Bout's lawyer accused the US of "outrageous, inexcusable" conduct after his client had turned down a first approach to enter into a deal with Farc. He had only finally gone along with the proposal in order to sell two elderly cargo planes for $5m. Prosecutors responded that his illegal trading made him a threat not only to the US but to internationally.