NEW YORK — Viktor Bout had long been been described by U.S. officials and activists as one of the world’s most notorious arms traffickers, using multiple aliases and a handful of passports to serve clients ranging from the Taliban to Liberian warlord Charles Taylor.
Today, a U.S. jury found the man dubbed “the merchant of death” guilty on all four counts against him — conspiracy to sell missiles to terrorists, conspiracy to kill U.S. service personnel, conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens, and conspiracy to aid a terrorist organization.
At his sentencing, scheduled for February 8, Bout faces a minimum sentence of 25 years in prison and the possibility of life behind bars.
After the conviction, Preet Bharara, the lead federal prosecutor for Manhattan, said in a statement, “As the evidence at trial showed, Viktor Bout was ready to sell a weapons arsenal that would be the envy of some small countries.”
“With today’s swift verdict, justice has been done and a very dangerous man will be behind bars,” the statement said.
Speaking to reporters after the ruling, Albert Dayan, one of Bout’s defense attorneys, said he would appeal.
“I can generally tell you that we are very disappointed about this verdict, but the jury has spoken. This is definitely not the end of the process for us. We intend to appeal by way of motions to this judge and then we intend to go to the United States Court of Appeals,” he said.
The 44-year-old Bout had managed to avoid capture for years before he was apprehended in Thailand in 2008 in an elaborate sting operation conducted by U.S. agents.
He was extradited to the United States in 2010.
In the operation, the agents posed as arms buyers from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which Washington considers a terrorist organization.
Prosecutors said Bout had agreed to provide the agents with an arsenal of military weaponry and that he understood would be used to attack U.S. helicopter pilots and other U.S. citizens in Colombia.
Significant assistance to the prosecution was provided by South African businessman Andrew Smulian, a former close associate of Bout, who agreed to testify against him as part of a plea deal.
Smulian told jurors that for a down payment of $20 million, Bout agreed to arrange for cargo planes to air-drop 100 tons of weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, into Colombia.
Defense attorney Dayan told jurors in his closing argument on October 31 that case against Bout was “pure speculation,” and that Bout had falsely promised to deliver to weapons in order to try to sell off two of his old cargo planes.
The defense team also argued that while their client may have been involved in the arms trade, it was only as a transportation agent and never as an dealer.
However, the jurors thought otherwise, taking only about six hours of deliberations to convict him on all charges.
Kathi Austin, the executive director of the Conflict Awareness Project, a U.S.-based NGO that focuses on arms trafficking and war profiteers, has closely followed Viktor Bout’s story.
After the verdict was issued, she said the case should serve as a lesson to the United Nations and individual countries that enhanced arms trafficking legislation is needed:
“There’s a closing of a chapter on Viktor Bout, but to prevent the next Viktor Bouts from coming about or to prevent other people from taking his place, it’s important to have national laws and an international control regime [on the arms trade] in place.”
Austin also said the “greatest tragedy” of the case was that, “We really haven’t heard or seen what the suffering or the aftermath or the devastation has been with the types of crimes Viktor Bout has committed.”
Other rights groups also hailed the conviction of the man they say has enabled some of the world’s bloodiest conflicts.
The case against Bout has led to tensions between Washington and Moscow.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has claimed that the United States violated international law by intercepting a foreign national in a third country and that Bout’s extradition from Thailand was the result of an “unprecedented political pressure” on the Thai government.
Speaking to reporters after Bout’s conviction, Aleksandr Otchainov, the deputy consul at Russia’s New York consulate, said that he will continue to provide legal assistance to Bout and his family.
“[We will provide] consular assistance to our citizen (eds: Bout) as well as to his family to explain the steps that we are going to discuss with him personally and with his lawyers,” he said.
“More detailed comments will be given after a full analysis of the situation as it stands right now with the official position of the ministry of foreign affairs.”
Bout is perhaps best known to the general public through the violent 2005 Hollywood movie “Lord of War, where actor Nicholas Cage plays a character modeled after Bout.