The appearance of Viktor Bout, the so-called "Merchant of Death," in a Manhattan courtroom this week represents a milestone in the long battle to stop the black market arms trade.
U.S. prosecutors insist that the trial of accused Russian arms broker Viktor Bout, which opened in Manhattan federal court this week, is an open-and-shut case.
During a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) sting operation in Bangkok in March 2008, the alleged arms dealer, known as the Merchant of Death, was caught on tape describing his plan to sell millions of dollars in weapons to the Colombian rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to "kill American pilots."
"This is not a complicated case," Assistant U.S. Attorney Brendan McGuire told a federal jury on Wednesday, Oct. 12, during his opening argument, before itemizing a shopping list of weapons Bout pledged to supply to the rebels. "It's all on tape.... This man, Viktor Bout, agreed to provide all of it to a foreign terrorist organization he believed was planning to kill Americans."
Sure, it may be a slam dunk. But Bout's lawyer, Albert Dayan, provided by far the more dramatic narrative, weaving together a complex opening argument this week that seemed like it came straight out of a David Mamet play.
It's true, Dayan said, that federal informants lured his client into entering into discussions about a plan to purchase for the FARC 100 surface-to-air missiles, 20,000 AK-47 rifles, 20,000 fragment grenades, 740 mortars, 350 sniper rifles, five tons of C-4 explosives, and 10 million rounds of ammunition. But he said Bout was playing his own con, luring them into purchasing two cargo planes he was trying to unload for $5 million while holding up the promise of supplying weapons that would never be delivered.
"The simple and very profound truth is that Viktor Bout never wanted, never intended, and never was going to sell arms," Dayan said, a Queens, N.Y., criminal attorney. "He played a perfect sucker to catch a sucker."
The success of Dayan's trial strategy will require jurors to imagine a world in which nobody can be trusted and everyone -- including the good guys -- is motivated by selfish interests. That's not such a tall order, given the remarkably opaque nature of the illicit arms trade, which occurs outside the reach of international laws and regulations and relies on the cooperation of a far-flung network of shady entrepreneurs willing to make a buck off the backs' of some of the world's most desperate people.
McGuire acknowledged the unsavory character of Bout's accusers, who include two federal informants with a criminal past. As he put it, "You may not like them.... The question is whether you believe them." It also includes Bout's co-conspirator, Andrew Smulian, who agreed to cooperate with the prosecution as part of a plea agreement that could lessen his jail time. Smulian, the prosecutor acknowledged, will "not testify out of the goodness of his heart."
The opening of the trial, presided over by U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin, marked the culmination of a five-year effort by the United States to capture and prosecute one of the world's most famous alleged arms dealers. And it raised hope among human rights advocates and arms-control experts that the case will shine some light on one of the world's darkest industries.
Bout's arrest by the Thai Royal Police at the Sofitel hotel in Bangkok led to a long and politically charged extradition proceeding, which was marked by an acrimonious struggle between U.S. and Russian authorities over his fate. It also placed considerable strain on U.S. diplomacy at a time when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was seeking to "reset" the U.S.-Russia relationship. In August 2010, following a Thai court's decision that Bout could be extradited to the United States, after two-and-a-half years in Thai custody, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov protested that the development followed "very strong outside pressure" and was a "political decision" by the Thai court.
The case has also drawn the attention of international arms-control advocates, including Oxfam and the Conflict Awareness Project, that are hoping to harness public interest in the trial to push for the passage of an international arms-trade treaty that would impose greater rules and regulations on the arms trade. "This is a victorious moment in the fight against injustice," said Kathi Lynn Austin, the founder of the Conflict Awareness Project, who has been blogging about the trial. "After all these years, it is important to see Viktor Bout finally face justice."
But she expressed concern that the narrow focus of the prosecution's case on the Colombian sting operation may gloss over the extraordinary scope of Bout's alleged crimes and squander an opportunity to rally public pressure to impose restrictions on the arms trade. "My main concern is that the public disclosure around the arms-trafficking activities will be so limited that policymakers won't get a sense that there is a strong need to tighten domestic and international laws," she said.
In Manhattan's Daniel Patrick Moynihan United States Courthouse, Bout appeared in a crisp, black, pinstriped suit; with his thick, brown hair trimmed short; and with his signature bushy mustache. His wife and teenage daughter arrived at the courthouse after the trial got under way. He cast a long intense gaze at the American jurors as they piled into the courtroom, preparing to determine his fate.
It was a long way from his home in Moscow, where Bout had lived in a kind of protected exile as a result of U.N. sanctions that barred him from traveling abroad and imposed a freeze on all his assets. But the case has generated intensive news coverage in Russia, where Bout enjoys the support of the government and much of the public.
McGuire, the prosecutor, told a federal jury in his opening arguments that the prosecution had amassed an overwhelming trove of evidence, including recorded conversations of Bout negotiating the arms deal, that would almost certainly lead to the conviction of the Russian national.
If Bout is convicted, it will mark an ignominious end for a man who was once a master of the secretive world of arms trafficking. A former Soviet military advisor in Africa, Bout left the military at age 24 and established his own freight company in 1991, just as the Soviet Union collapsed, leaving behind a massive supply of Soviet-era cargo planes and surplus weapons.
By age 30, according to McGuire, Bout had acquired 30 cargo planes and an almost mythical reputation as a weapons supplier of choice for myriad armed groups in Africa during the 1990s. His dealings were documented in the book Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible, by reporters Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun. He reportedly served as an inspiration for the international arms dealer played by Nicolas Cage in the 2005 film Lord of War.
As the U.N. Security Council sought to halt arms flows into Africa's deadliest conflict zones near the turn of the century, Bout emerged as an early target. A series of U.N. panels accused Bout of trafficking arms throughout Africa, beginning with Angola and moving on to West Africa, where he was accused of arming the Revolutionary United Front, a brutal Sierra Leonean insurgency that terrorized civilians by severing their limbs. Bout's aircraft also "flew hundreds of flights, as a sub-contractor, for the U.S military and its principal contractors such as KBR, Fedex and others," Farah wrote on his website shortly after Bout's arrest in 2008.
The Security Council imposed a travel ban on Bout in March 2004 and later froze his financial assets for his alleged role in supplying arms to former Liberian leader Charles Taylor, who was tried for war crimes by a U.N.-backed court. "[B]etween 1996 and 2008, BOUT had the capacity to transport large-scale military machinery, as well as extensive stores of weapons to virtually any location in the world," read a 2009 federal indictment by the U.S. attorney from the Southern District of New York.
Bout's attorney denied that his client had ever directly brokered an arms deal, saying that he only provided transportation to those who did. "He was paid to transport, and that is what he did," Dayan said. He went on to argue that the U.N. Security Council's decision in 2004 to impose sanctions on Bout was politically motivated and that Bout returned to Moscow to explore opportunities in the real estate business.
Dayan said that his client had initially made it clear that he had turned over a new leaf and had no interest in getting back into the arms-smuggling business. But he said Smulian, who was short on funds and knew Bout was trying to unload two cargo airplanes, kept pushing Bout to agree to the deal with the two paid DEA informants posing as FARC members. Bout finally agreed to meet with the informants, identified only as Carlos and Ricardo, in Thailand and to hammer out the final details.
The prosecutor said that Bout immediately displayed a "mastery" of the arms trade, identifying the Eastern European suppliers, explaining the logistical plans, and developing a cover story to evade detection. He also expressed personal "sympathy" with the men's cause. "We're together, and we have the same enemy," Bout was recorded saying. "It's not business. It's my fight. I'm fighting the United States for 10 or 15 years."
Dayan maintained his client was just telling them what he thought they wanted to hear, saying it was no different than a businessman trying to close a deal with a guy wearing a New York Yankees cap by saying something nice about his ball team.
"He didn't walk into the meeting and say, 'I want to kill Americans.' He said, 'Yes, yes, they're my enemies too; just give me $5 million for the planes,'" Dayan said.
The prosecutor, of course, had a different pitch to the jury. "Viktor Bout was given the opportunity to put millions of dollars of weapons [into the hands of] terrorists in order to kill Americans," McGuire said. "He jumped at the opportunity."
CHRISTINE CORNELL/AFP/Getty Images