Arms Trader Viktor Bout Convicted

Xiaodon Liang

In the high-profile criminal case against a man who has become a symbol of the illicit arms trade, a federal jury in New York City on Nov. 3 found arms dealer Viktor Bout guilty on all four charges brought against him.

Following a three-week trial and less than two days of deliberation, the jury found Bout guilty of conspiring to acquire and use anti-aircraft missiles, kill U.S. nationals, kill U.S. officials, and provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization, namely the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Judge Shira A. Scheindlin, who presided over the case, has scheduled a sentencing hearing for Feb. 8.

Bout, a Russian national, was arrested in March 2008 in Bangkok by Thai authorities working with U.S. law enforcement officials, following a series of meetings with undercover agents he believed to be arms buyers for FARC. (See ACT, April 2008.)

Russian government officials sharply criticized the verdict. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich alleged in a Nov. 3 statement that the U.S. government had created a biased atmosphere around the trial, “preventing objective consideration of facts.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Oct. 21 in a radio interview reported on by RIA Novosti that Bout was “provoked” to make statements that were used as evidence of his crimes in a meeting with U.S. officials directly after his arrest. In an Aug. 25 pretrial ruling, Scheindlin decided that prosecutors would be barred from using those statements in the trial. Scheindlin found that because Bout was arrested at gunpoint, strip-searched, denied access to consular and legal assistance, and interviewed immediately by U.S. officials in spite of his request not to be, those statements were not “made voluntarily” as required by law.

However, Scheindlin ruled against Bout’s lawyers when they filed a motion to dismiss the charges on the grounds that they were politically motivated or vindictive. Scheindlin said the lawyers had not shown that Bout had been pursued by law enforcement officials solely because of U.S. vindictiveness. Bout’s lawyers had alleged in their motion that the U.S. government was embarrassed by Bout’s ownership of cargo aircraft used to transport goods to the U.S. military in Iraq in 2003.

U.S. Department of State spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said during a Nov. 4 press briefing that the United States was “obviously gratified” by the verdict, but a press officer declined to elaborate when contacted for further comment. Attorney General Eric Holder stated in a Nov. 2 press release that Bout’s activities had been a “source of concern around the globe” for decades.

Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on terrorism, nonproliferation, and trade, also welcomed the verdict in a Nov. 2 press release. Royce said Bout had done “irreparable damage across the world” and praised the Thai government and U.S. officials for their conduct leading to the conviction. However, in a Nov. 16 e-mail to Arms Control Today, Royce said that Bout was only “the tip of the iceberg.”

Undercover Agents Testify

To convince the jury of Bout’s guilt, U.S. prosecutors relied on the testimony of two undercover Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents, recordings of meetings and conversations between Bout and those agents, and the testimony of Andrew Smulian, a former accomplice of Bout.

At the March 6, 2008, meeting in Bangkok at which Bout was arrested, he discussed the sale of 20,000 to 30,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles from Bulgaria and “Yugoslavia” with the DEA agents, who were posing as arms purchasers for FARC.

Ivan Zverzhanovski of the South Eastern and Eastern European Clearinghouse for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons told Arms Control Today in a Nov. 18 e-mail that transfers of weapons from former Yugoslav countries on the scale proposed by Bout would have to directly involve security ministry stockpiles. He said that this made it “much more unlikely” that Bout could have carried out the deals.

In the 2008 meeting, Bout also discussed his ability to provide Dragunov sniper rifles, C-4 explosives, fragmentation grenades, night vision equipment, and armed ultralight aircraft as well as the possibility of providing landmines to FARC.

According to a transcript of the meeting presented as testimony by the prosecution, Bout said his “friends” stopped producing landmines after the 1990s and that the mines are “not being sold right now.” Bout also said he would provide training for the use of some of the weapons and spare parts for their maintenance. He explained to the DEA agents that he could potentially use arms export licenses for unconcluded, legal deals to facilitate the purchase of weapons from eastern European sources.

Of particular importance to U.S. prosecutors was Bout’s tentative agreement to facilitate the sale of Igla SA-18 surface-to-air missiles to FARC. Ricardo Jardenero, a DEA informant who posed as a FARC commander, told Bout that the missiles were to be used against Apache and Black Hawk helicopters operated by U.S. personnel in Colombia.

According to media accounts of the trial, Jardenero and Carlos Sagastume, another DEA informant who participated in meetings with Bout and testified at the trial, were involved in the illegal drug trade before becoming paid informants for the U.S. government.

Bout’s Defense

Albert Dayan, one of Bout’s lawyers, asked Sagastume during the trial whether the payments had influenced his testimony, according to media reports. Sagastume denied that they had.

Bout’s defense centered more on the claim that the arms dealer’s main intent was to sell two cargo planes to FARC and that the arms components of the negotiations were secondary. (See ACT, November 2011.)

In a Nov. 3 interview with The New York Times after the conclusion of the trial, jury forewoman Heather Hobson said Bout’s defense was critically undermined by the recording of a phone conversation with Smulian, submitted as testimony. During the call, according to the interview, Bout appeared not to have developed detailed planning for the plane sale. Hobson said this contradicted Bout’s defense because it showed he had not given extensive thought to what he had claimed was the priority transaction at the meeting.

Bout’s lawyers asked Scheindlin in a Nov. 11 letter for an annulment of the verdict or an evidentiary hearing, based on the possibility that some jurors had been tainted by exposure to prejudicial information about Bout before the trial, according to Russian media reports. A court spokeswoman confirmed Scheindlin had received the letter.

Hobson said in the Times interview that she had seen “Lord of War,” a 2005 movie in part inspired by Bout’s activities, but she said that, until the trial, she was not aware of the connection between Bout and the film.

Larger Problem

Royce, the House subcommittee chairman, welcomed the conviction and said in the Nov. 16 e-mail that Bout’s “Merchant of Death” title was “well-earned.” However, many of his clients and successors remain to be brought to justice, the chairman added. The arms traffickers that will step into Bout’s shoes likely will maintain a more low-key public persona, potentially complicating efforts to track them down, Royce said.

In testimony to Royce’s subcommittee Oct. 12, Douglas Farah, the author of a 2007 book on Bout, identified Bout and his peers as a small group of “super fixers,” experts in providing critical illicit services to criminals, terrorists, and states. Farah said they derive their utility from their knowledge of how to exploit the “seams in the international legal and economic structure” and are “gatekeepers” for illegal goods, including small arms, weapons of mass destruction parts or materials, drugs, and trafficked humans.

In the e-mail Royce said that super fixers’ ability to make use of “criminal states” that “just plain need responsible governments” was the key to their success. Royce cited Bout’s registration of aircraft in Liberia and Equatorial Guinea and purchase of end-user certificates from Togo as examples of this ability. The legal protection that the Russian government gave Bout also was a main factor that allowed him to act with impunity, Royce said.