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Russian Arms Dealer Pleads Not Guilty, Is Ordered Held

Viktor Bout, dubbed the “merchant of death” for allegedly trafficking in arms, pleaded not guilty to U.S. terrorism charges and was ordered held without bail by a federal judge in New York.

Bout, a former Soviet air force officer, arrived in New York yesterday aboard a chartered plane after his extradition from Thailand, U.S. prosecutors said. He is charged with plotting to kill American citizens in a 2008 indictment filed by the office of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in Manhattan.

At an arraignment today that lasted about 10 minutes, Bout entered a not guilty plea through his court-appointed lawyer, Sabrina Shroff. He was ordered held without bail by U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin, who set his next court appearance for Jan. 10.

“Today in Manhattan federal court, Viktor Bout begins to face American justice,” Bharara said today at a news conference announcing Bout’s arrival in the U.S. “The so-called Merchant of Death is now a federal inmate.”

Bout is charged with conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals, conspiracy to kill U.S. officers or employees, conspiracy to acquire an anti-aircraft missile and conspiracy to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist group.

He has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, saying he was framed by U.S. undercover agents posing as Colombian rebels.

If convicted of all charges, he faces as long as life in prison, Bharara said.

Thai Arrest

Bout, a Russian citizen, was transferred to a high-security jail in Lower Manhattan where he will be held until trial. He has been in custody in Thailand since his arrest there on March 6, 2008, after U.S. prosecutors said he plotted to sell arms to a guerrilla group in Colombia.

“His extradition is a victory for the rule of law worldwide,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said last night in a statement. Bout has “long been considered one of the world’s most prolific arms traffickers.”

Russia’s foreign ministry, on its website, called Bout’s removal to the U.S. an “illegal extradition” that resulted from “unprecedented U.S. political pressure on the government and judiciary of Thailand.”

Bout controlled a fleet of as many as 50 cargo planes capable of transporting weapons and military equipment to Africa, South America and the Middle East, the U.S. said.

FARC Guerillas

He agreed to sell millions of dollars worth of weapons to Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC, a revolutionary group dedicated to overthrowing the government of Colombia, the U.S. said. FARC is also the world’s biggest supplier of cocaine, according to the U.S.

Bout agreed to provide the group with surface-to-air missiles, armor-piercing rocket launchers, AK-47 rifles, anti-personnel mines and C-4 plastic explosives, the U.S. said.

In a meeting in Thailand, Bout indicated he understood the weapons would be used against U.S. personnel in Colombia, telling undercover agents that the U.S. was his enemy, the government said.

“The U.S. needs a scapegoat because they can’t find Osama bin Laden,” Bout’s brother Sergei said.

The government’s evidence against Bout includes “audio recordings conducted in various locations, in English and Spanish,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Anjan Sahni told Scheindlin today. Sahni said investigators searched Bout’s laptop computer.

Bout, wearing a brown prison-issued T-shirt and track pants with pull-on tennis shoes, appeared to understand some English when addressed by the judge today.

‘Good Day’

He answered “Good day” in English when Scheindlin greeted him. When the judge notified him of his rights, Bout answered, “Yes, your honor.”

A court-appointed Russian-speaking interpreter was also at the hearing.

Scheindlin said Bout said in an affidavit filed with the court that he is married, has a 16-year-old child and hasn’t earned any money in the past year.

The case is U.S. v. Bout, 08-cr-0065, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

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