NEW YORK, August 18 (Itar-Tass) — Viktor Bout’s lawyers have failed to prevent the US Attorney’s Office from attaching to his case some circumstantial evidence designed to fix his reputation as a dangerous international arms dealer. At the next pre-trial hearings in the case of the Russian businessman held at the federal court of the Southern District of Manhattan on Wednesday, Judge Shira Scheindlin agreed with the prosecution side arguments insisting on attaching to the case of the evidence suggesting that in the 1990s Bout was actively supplying weapons and ammunition to armed conflict zones mainly in Africa. For this the businessman in 2004 was put on the UN sanctions list, and then on the “blacklist” of the United States.
Lawyer Albert Dayan exerted much effort to convince the court to reject the prosecutors’ request who were trying, in his words, “to present Bout to the jury as a cold, unscrupulous swindler dealer who acted in defiance of both the UN and United States in realising his evil ambitions.” However, the lawyer’s eloquence failed to overpower the judge’s logic. Scheindlin is convinced that although none of the so-called evidence pieces proves Bout’s crime, their attachment to the case would “provide the jury with a minimum level of context,” without which it will be difficult for jurors to form a general idea of the personality and deeds of the defendant.
However, Scheindlin seemed to heed the arguments of Dayan that the UN is a political rather than legal authority, and did not insist on summoning to court of expert witnesses who could authoritatively tell the jury about the specific actions taken by the UN and US federal agencies against Bout. She also agreed not to mention before the jury that the Russian citizen came to the attention of the UN Security Council that mentioned him in an annex to Resolution 1532 (of 2004).
During the hearing, Viktor Bout’s lawyer almost categorically stated that his client “has never sold arms and never acted as an intermediary for their sale,” but only provided transport services. But he still possessed the ability to ship substantial amounts of arms to conflict zones, retorted the judge. One of Bout’s customers in Africa, according to the indictment, was the UNITA group, which until 2002 was at war with the Angolan Government. Dayan expressed concern about the mention of this terrorist group, because there was a time when the US administration had officially provided active military assistance to it. Sheindlin agreed to remove from the judicial documents any reference to UNITA. She is not sure that someone from the future jury will know the name. She also considered unnecessary a reference to Libya, to which, according to the Attorney’s Office, Bout allegedly intended to supply anti-tank weapons in 2007.
Dayan hurried to call all these minor concessions a “big victory” for his client. In a tactical sense he may be right, but by and large, this changes absolutely nothing in the main trend that clearly manifested itself in the first days of the proceedings last November when Bout was taken under police escort from Thailand to New York. Over the past few months Scheindlin has rejected all appeals filed by the previous and current team of lawyers of the Russian who tried to challenge the legality of his extradition to the United States and the so-called extraterritorial jurisdiction to which the US authorities have very often resorted in recent years. As for the prosecution side, only once it met Bout’s lawyers halfway when in it May agreed to remove from the case materials the nickname “Merchant of Death” given to the Russian businessman.
According to the Courthouse News, Scheindlin appeared surprised when defence attorney Dayan said he would not describe Bout as an arms dealer. “Your position is that he was not an arms dealer,” Scheindlin asked. Bout “never sold, never brokered,” Dayan insisted, adding that his client is in the air-transportation business. Prosecutors plan to undermine that position with emails purporting to show negotiations of a deal.
According to journalists reporting on the Viktor Bout case, the proceedings have has something in common with a recent trial in New York of an international arms dealer Monzer Al-Kassar from Syria, who, like the Russia, was the victim of a sting operation by agents of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
His lawyer Lee Sorkin told the non-profit radio station NPR that under US law, “if some persons are involved in an action or a criminal conspiracy to harm American citizens or armed forces of the United States, regardless of their place of stay in the world they fall under the jurisdiction of US courts.”
The reason for which the Russian citizen was arrested in Thailand in March 2008 and extradited to the United States in November 2010 to stand trial in New York, is that he, among other things, is charged with “conspiracy to kill US nationals.” The Attorney’s Office claims that Bout allegedly agreed to supply weapons to “an international terrorist organisation, knowing that its purpose was to kill US citizens and officials in Colombia.”
Bout was apprehended in Bangkok, Thailand, on March 6, 2008, at the US request. The United States was unable to present evidence for a whole year but kept referring to newspaper articles and conclusions of certain experts. The Thai court acquitted the businessman and denied his transfer to the United States in August 2009. The United States demanded to review the case. The Thai Court of Appeal said on August 20, 2010, that Bout would be transferred to the United States where he could be sentenced to life in jail.
Bout accused US security services of fabricating his case and falsely alleging his plans to sell mobile anti-aircraft missile systems to Colombian insurgents. “I have never had this intention. I have never been to the United States or Colombia. US security services fabricated the accusations of an alleged conspiracy to kill American citizens and support to terrorism on the basis of a provocative act they organized against me in Bangkok,” he said. Bout bluntly denied alleged arms trade and said that he had a legal international transportation business in 1993-2001. “Many media outlets present me as the largest illegal arms trader in the world but never give a thought to the absence of any evidence,” he noted. The extradition followed a decision of the Thai government, which approved the transfer of the 43-year-old businessman to the United States.
This extradition is non-legal, the businessman’s lawyer told Itar-Tass. “That was done secretly and totally illegally, which was confirmed by a number of documents possessed by the court,” he said.
Judge Scheindlin for September 7 appointed the final meeting at which the lawyers and the prosecution are to finally coordinate positions on the issues that were discussed on Wednesday. The trial of Bout is scheduled to begin on October 11. If convicted, the 44-year old businessman faces from 25 years in prison to life imprisonment.