Jury selection in the trial of Viktor Bout, the Russian arms dealer nicknamed by the U.S. authorities “The Merchant of Death,” has wrapped up after the first day of his trial in a New York federal courtroom on October 11.
The 44-year-old Bout has pleaded not guilty on charges of conspiracy to kill Americans, attempting to sell weapons to a terrorist organization, and violating a United Nations arms embargo.
If convicted, he could be sentenced to life in prison.
Bout was apprehended in Thailand in 2008 in a sting operation carried out by agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, who posed as members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, a Colombian rebel group designated by the United States as a terrorist organization.
Bout is accused of planning to sell the rebels surface-to-air missiles and other weapons.
His two-year legal battle to avoid extradition to the United States ended in November, 2010, and led to accusations from Moscow that Washington had breached international law
Bout’s case has attracted enormous media attention and the courtroom in downtown Manhattan where the trial is taking place was packed to capacity. Reporters were not allowed inside.
The selection of 12 jurors and 3 alternates wrapped up quicker than had been expected. The trial itself is expected to last about a month.
Douglas Farah, a security consultant and a former journalist, is the co-author of a book on Bout’s life, called, appropriately, “Merchant of Death.”
He said the prosecution’s key evidence will be secretly recorded conversations where Bout is heard saying that he is determined to kill Americans.
“The fact that he expressed an intention to provide weapons to a designated terrorist organization with the intent to harm Americans is what matters,” Farah said.
Farah believes the chances that Bout will be found guilty are fairly high, despite a setback for the prosecution during pre-trial hearings when the judge suggested that some of the evidence against Bout may be inadmissible in court.
“The vast bulk of what the DA [district attorney] is going to present remained intact and I think that would be the meeting with Viktor Bout in Thailand and numerous emails and voice mails claiming to be able to deliver significant amounts of weapons to people he thought were the FARC,” he said. “So I don’t think that their case was fatally damaged, I think it might have been damaged around the edges on the margin by what the judge ruled.”
Bout’s defense team has argued that their client has never brokered or sold weapons and was merely running a fleet of cargo planes that may have been used for weapons transportation.
Bout’s wife and daughter were seated in the courtroom on the opening day of the trial, along with officials from Russia’s New York consulate.
Judge Gives Impartiality Warning
His wife, Alla, has accused U.S. authorities of unfairly targeting her husband and said she doesn’t believe he will receive a fair trial.
In an unusual move, presiding Judge Shira Scheindlin announced that in order to ensure an impartial jury, she will require jurors to sign a sworn affidavit that they won’t read information on Bout on the Internet or elsewhere.
Bout was the inspiration for the 2005 Hollywood film, “Lord Of War” starring Nicholas Cage.
Farah thinks the trial will not be much different from other high-profile cases where impartiality has been a concern.
“The jury selection system seems to work pretty well and I think that the judge is absolutely right in asking them to refrain from reading anything about him, going with an open mind,” he said. “And I think it is going be as good as any system can get, I think he has as good a shot at a fair trial under this system as anyone could get.”