­Case closed? Final arguments heard in ‘Merchant of Death’ trial

A New York court has postponed issuing a final verdict in the case of Russian businessman Viktor Bout, who is accused of international arms trafficking. The jury is expected to deliver a verdict on Tuesday.

Both the prosecution and defense have delivered their closing statements in the case.  Assistant federal attorney Anjan Sahni told the jury that a guilty verdict was “inescapable” for the former Soviet officer. The defense, meanwhile, maintained that their client is involved in legitimate business deals and must be acquitted.

Bout’s trial began three weeks ago, but his tribulations started long before that. Arrested in a US Drug Enforcement Administration sting operation in the Thai capital Bangkok in March 2008, he first spent months in the infamous “Bangkok Hilton” – one of the world’s most notorious prisons – while awaiting his extradition hearing. Despite many claims of pressure on the Thai court by US officials, the lengthy proceedings finally came to a close in 2010, when Bout was sent to the US.

Bout faces four charges: conspiring to kill American nationals, conspiring to kill American officers and employees, conspiring to use and acquire anti-aircraft missiles, and conspiring to provide material support to the FARC rebels in Colombia. He has maintained his innocence throughout the case, stating his business was sales and services in the shipping industry.

US prosecutors, however, insisted that Bout is one of the world’s most prolific black-market arms dealers, and backed up their charges with a conversation with Bout recorded during the sting operation in Thailand. But the state’s confidence in a guilty verdict was shaken when New York Southern District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin threw out Bout’s testimony made prior to his extradition to the United States. Scheindlin said Thai officials allowed for serious procedural violations by refusing Bout a meeting with his attorneys.

The case has attracted media attention from the very beginning, not least because of Bout himself. A Hollywood movie starring Nicolas Cage as Bout has given him a lot of notoriety, to the point where jury members had to sign pledges vowing not to Google the man on trial, so as to remain unbiased.

The case has also had an effect on relations between Moscow and Washington – and not a positive one.  Russia believes Bout’s extradition was only possible because of unprecedented political pressure on Thai judicial authorities, and that the trial was lost before it had even begun. Many, both in Russia and abroad, seemed to share that opinion, claiming that after all the effort and media coverage associated with Bout and his trial, prosecutors simply could not afford to lose the case.

And while they have been emboldened by Bout’s former partner Andrew Smulian pleading guilty and testifying for the prosecution in return for a deal, they have turned a blind eye to statements shining a less-than-favorable light on US officials.

A Russian pilot sentenced to 20 years for alleged drug trafficking said he got his lengthy prison time because he refused to testify against Bout.  Konstantin Yaroshenko says has never met Bout personally, and only saw him a few times while they were both held in a Manhattan jail. According to Yaroshenko, US prosecutors tried to influence him to testify – even offering him freedom and US citizenship for his entire family.

The jury will now deliberate. If the 12 jurors fail to reach a unanimous verdict, the judge will be forced to declare a mistrial and set a date for new proceedings. If Bout is found guilty, he is expected to appeal.

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