Viktor Bout, the alleged international arms dealer once called the “merchant of death,” agreed to sell weapons to a foreign terrorist group he believed planned to kill Americans, a prosecutor said.
“He jumped at the opportunity,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Brendan McGuire said during opening arguments of Bout’s trial, which began today in federal court in Manhattan before U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin.
Bout, a former Soviet air force officer, was arrested in Bangkok in March 2008 in a sting operation by undercover sources who told him they were buying weapons for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
The U.S. accused Bout of agreeing to sell millions of dollars worth of weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, armor-piercing rocket launchers and AK-47 rifles, to FARC, a Marxist insurgency that’s classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and the European Union.
McGuire began his opening argument by listing the weapons Bout was alleged to be providing: 100 surface-to-air missiles, 20,000 machine guns, 20,000 grenades, 740 mortars, 350 sniper rifles, 10 million rounds of ammunition and five tons of C-4 explosives.
Prosecutors said 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.
Bout was framed by U.S. undercover sources who pulled a “bait and switch,” his lawyer said today.
“They baited Viktor by pretending they were interested in purchasing two cargo airplanes,” Albert Dayan told jurors in his opening argument. “They then planned to inject a conversation about arms into that deal.”
Bout “never wanted to, never intended to, and was never going to sell arms to anyone in this case,” Dayan said.
Bout, dressed in a dark suit and blue tie, with short brown hair and a mustache, looked considerably thinner than he did in a 2008 photograph displayed in the courtroom. He sat with his two lawyers.
The first government witness today was William Brown, a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent who managed the investigation. The three undercover sources used to make contact with Bout and his associates and pretend to be FARC members were paid almost $1 million for their work on the case, he testified.
Bout was brought to New York in November from Thailand in a move that fueled a diplomatic dispute between the U.S. and Russia, which called the transfer an “illegal extradition.”
In July, Scheindlin denied a bid by Bout to dismiss the charges on grounds that there was no legal connection between his alleged crime and the U.S. Scheindlin said in her opinion that the indictment alleges Bout knew that FARC intended to use weapons to kill U.S. forces in Colombia.
“At that point, Bout should have reasonably anticipated being hauled into court in this country,” the judge wrote in her opinion.
Scheindlin in August granted a motion from Bout’s lawyers to exclude statements he made to DEA agents after his arrest in Bangkok in March 2008, saying the agents ignored Bout’s request for more time to decide whether to talk.
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. If convicted, he faces as long as life in prison.
Peter Hain, the former top U.K. Foreign Ministry official for Africa, called Bout a “merchant of death” in a 2000 speech, a phrase that became the title of a 2007 book by authors Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun. Prosecutors in May agreed to stop calling Bout the “merchant of death” after defense attorneys objected to its use.
The case is U.S. v. Bout, 08-cr-0365, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).