The jury in the trial of a former Soviet air force officer accused of being one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers is due to begin hearing evidence on Wednesday, after two years of legal wrangling between the US and Russia that ended when he arrived in New York last year.
Viktor Bout, whose alleged role in fuelling some of the developing world’s bloodiest conflicts earned him the sobriquet “merchant of death”, will stand trial on weapons trafficking and terrorism charges.
He is accused by the US of conspiring to sell millions of dollars worth of weapons to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) rebels, in order to kill Americans. Farc is designated a terrorist organisation by Washington and the EU.
He was seized by the Thai authorities in March 2008, after a sting operation by US agents in a Bangkok hotel, but was only extradited to the US in November 2010.
Bout, 44, has pleaded not guilty to the charges and maintains that he was in Thailand on official government business. He claims to be a businessman who ran an air cargo business that specialised in flying to conflict areas.
Bout was arrested after allegedly offering to sell weapons to two American agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration who were posing as Farc rebels. The weapons included surface-to-air missiles, anti-personnel land mines and “ultralight” aircraft that could be fitted with missiles and grenade-launchers.
During a covertly-recorded meeting in Thailand on March 6, according to the justice department, Bout told two DEA undercover agents he could arrange to airdrop the arms to Farc in Colombia and offered to sell two cargo planes to the rebel group to transport them.
The US say Bout indicated at the meeting that he understood that the agents wanted the arms for use against American personnel and offered to provide people to train Farc in the use of the weapons.
He spent two years in a high-security prison in Thailand, while the US and Russia, which opposed his extradition and wanted him returned to Moscow, argued over his fate.
Bout, whose life story is said to have inspired the Hollywood film, Lord of War, starring Nicolas Cage, has been linked to a long list of authoritarian regimes and conflicts over the past two decades. Peter Hain, the former British government minister, branded him “Africa’s chief merchant of death” for his involvement in countries such as Angola, Sierra Leone and Sudan.
He helped arm the Liberian rebel leader, Charles Taylor, later president who came before the international criminal court for war crimes. In 2005 the US authorities froze the assets of several companies in which Bout had a stake after the Bush administration barred trade with Taylor.
The US also alleges that Bout made tens of millions of dollars selling arms to the Taliban when it was governing Afghanistan.
The indictment against Bout charges him with four separate terrorism offences. They are conspiracy to kill US nationals; conspiracy to kill US officers or employees; conspiracy to acquire and use an anti-aircraft missile; and conspiracy to provide material support or resources to a designated foreign terrorist organisation. If convicted of all charges, Bout faces a mandatory minimum of 25 years in prison and a maximum of life in prison.
Tags: air cargo business
, drug enforcement administration
, farc rebels
, revolutionary armed forces of colombia farc
, surface to air missiles
Categories: The Western Press