A notorious arms dealer dubbed the “Merchant of Death” has been sentenced to 25 years in prison following his conviction on terrorism charges.
After former Soviet officer Viktor Bout was sentenced in New York yesterday, Russia’s Foreign Ministry called the sentence “unfounded and biased” and pledged to seek his return home.
Russia had described Bout’s arrest as illegal.
Bout has been in jail since his arrest in Thailand four years ago after he met US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) operatives posing as agents of a Colombian terrorism group. He was extradited to the US for trial in 2010.
Prosecutors portrayed Bout as one of the world’s worst villains. They say the 45-year-old was ready to sell up to $20m in weapons, including surface-to-air missiles to shoot down US helicopters.
Bout has insisted he is a legitimate businessman.
Yesterday, Bout made clear he had heard enough in court, although a federal prosecutor was only two minutes into an argument urging a harsh prison sentence.
“It’s a lie!” Bout blurted out in English – a rare show of raw defiance for a defendant facing a possible life term.
Despite Bout’s outburst and his insistence that he was framed, he received only the mandatory minimum 25 years in prison.
The way federal agents went about capturing Bout – an elaborate sting that lured him to Thailand – appeared to play in his favour at his sentencing.
US district judge Shira Scheindlin said 25 years – not the life sentence wanted by prosecutors – was sufficient and appropriate because there was no evidence that Bout would have been charged with seeking to harm Americans if not approached by informants posing as Colombian rebels.
“But for the approach made through this determined sting operation, there is no reason to believe Bout would ever have committed the charged crimes,” she said.
Bout’s sentencing came months after a jury convicted him of four conspiracy charges relating to his support of a Colombian terrorist organisation.
For nearly two decades, he built a worldwide air cargo operation, amassing a fleet of more than 60 transport planes, hundreds of companies and a fortune reportedly in excess of $6bn – exploits that were the main inspiration for the Nicholas Cage film 'Lord Of War'.
His aircraft flew from Afghanistan to Angola, carrying everything from raw minerals to gladioli, drilling equipment to frozen fish. But, according to authorities, the network’s speciality was black market arms – assault rifles, ammunition, anti-aircraft missiles, helicopter gunships and a full range of sophisticated weapons systems, almost always sourced from Russian stocks or from Eastern European factories.
In the months before the September 11 2001 attacks, US, British and United Nations authorities heard growing reports that Bout’s planes and maintenance operations, then headquartered in the United Arab Emirates, were aiding the Taliban while it sheltered al Qaida militants in Afghanistan.
Bout later denied that he worked with the Taliban or al Qaida, and denied ever participating in black market arms deals.
In 2008, while under economic sanctions and a UN travel ban, Bout was approached in Moscow by a close associate about supplying weapons on the black market to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
Bout was told that the group wanted to use drug-trafficking proceeds to pay for surface-to-air missiles and other weapons, making it clear it wanted to attack helicopter pilots and other Americans in Colombia, prosecutors said.
He finalised the phoney deal with the two DEA informants in a bugged hotel room in Bangkok in March 2008.
Throughout the case, Bout maintained he was a legitimate businessman who was not selling arms when the American operatives came knocking.
But in court papers, prosecutors said the US government initiated its investigation in 2007 because Bout “constituted a threat to the United States and to the international community based on his reported history of arming some of the world’s most violent and destabilising dictators and regimes”.
The Merchant of Death nickname was attached to Bout by a high-ranking minister at Britain’s Foreign Office, who had drawn attention to his 1990s notoriety for running a fleet of ageing Soviet-era cargo planes to conflict-ridden hotspots in Africa.
The nickname was included in the US government’s indictment of Bout, and US attorney Preet Bharara made reference to it when he announced Bout’s extradition in late 2010, saying: “The so-called Merchant of Death is now a federal inmate.”
Mr Bharara, in a statement, called the sentence “a fitting coda for this career arms trafficker of the most dangerous order”.