Most people associate arms trafficking with films like “Merchant of Death” and big names like Viktor Bout, the subject of that film. They said “good riddance” when they heard that he had been captured and flown off in chains to the US to serve a 25 year sentence for a multitude of crimes. Many would now be even happier if they threw away the key and that was the end of the story. But we got to this point because a lot of people who know the real story want us to think that way.
The official version of Bout’s crimes, capture, extradition and conviction looks almost seamless. It portrays a man with no moral limits who provided guns and logistics to various warlords and murderous African dictators purely for profit. The United Nations claims that he was the quartermaster for Charles Taylor, the Liberian dictator whose arms-for-gems deals in Sierra Leone, which created the term “blood diamonds”, helped fuel a civil war that cost some 150,000 lives. Media reports had him supplying arms to everyone from Colonel Gaddafi to al-Qaeda.
Little mention, however, was made of the services he provided to America in the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to UN Peacekeeping Missions around the world. He provided the Western allies with logistics that no one else could. The planes he is claimed to have owned are now providing cargo services for the same UN in Africa, and are often legally registered in places like Georgia, Armenia and the State of California.
When someone profits from a crime the proceeds of that crime, and the means used to commit it, are seized. So if these planes have been used to commit crimes, or are the proceeds of crime, how can this happen?
It just depends who the criminal is. As Bout’s defence attorney, Albert Dayan, wrote in a letter to the US Federal judge who sentenced him that the “United States had targeted his client vindictively because it was embarrassed that his companies helped deliver goods to American military contractors involved in the Iraq War.” White collar crime is illegal too, unless perpetrated by governments determined to drive private contractors out of business.
The most honest man in the story
Contrary to the impression given by the film and these various mouthpieces, Bout has NEVER been arrested for arms dealing in his life. He was set up by an associate who was secretly working for America’s Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and asked to broker an arms deal between Bout and men he was told were Colombian FACR revolutionaries.
A meeting was arranged outside US jurisdiction, at a hotel in Thailand. As in the case of Amir Ardebili, an Iranian national framed for weapons trafficking in Tbilisi, this meeting was recorded on videotape, this time via a secret camera planted by the agents, who recorded Bout offering to sell them anti-aircraft missiles.
Bout may have been willing to discuss such matters with the same people in US intelligence he had worked with before. But he soon realised that he was dealing with people who were trying to put him out of business, via a transaction which had nothing to do with the crimes he was ultimately charged with.
As his lawyers argued, until the DEA sting Bout had never actually committed a crime chargeable in an American court, and that the charge of “conspiring to kill Americans” was only brought because the agent posing as a FARC soldier had told Bout that he wanted to do this. Therefore, he was not conspiring with a person who was actually intending to kill Americans, so the basis of the charge was not valid.
The DEA and other US government agencies, like Customs, the FBI and Homeland Security, are well known for such entrapment. They see it as a legitimate tactic, but it is itself illegal. This case, like that against car maker John DeLorean, whose only defence to purchasing a big consignment of drugs he wanted to sell to save his business was entrapment, should have been thrown out there and then.
Bout’s mistake was that he did not get up and leave when the agent started talking about killing Americans but stayed and listened further. If he had thought initially that he was dealing with intelligence people he had learned to trust from previous dealings, he could not have been certain at that point that he had been set up, so had a reason to stay for his own clarification and protection. Ultimately he realised he was reading the wrong script, but by that time he was not in a position to commit any criminal offences.
As Bout told the judge at his trial, “If you’re going to apply the same standards to me, you should jail all the arms dealers in America too”. None of this fits with the Hollywood version which made Bout famous, or Nicolas Cage’s portrayal of him as a notorious arms dealer, AKA, the Merchant of Death. It may however fit with the frequent visits Cage’s brother Christopher Coppola makes to Georgia, as Cage himself may have been compromised by his unwitting association with the story.
Shadow dock and real crooks
Viktor Bout is sitting in jail because his actual, legal business dealings are an embarrassment. He was actually working for the United States, with its operations in Georgia and Armenia, and with US Special Operations, including some which involved Iraqi government officials. With connections such as those, it is easy to understand why he might have thought that if he really was talking to a FARC revolutionary the US was now supplying them, as they are now supplying ISIS and as they supplied the Contras.
Viktor Bout’s very first business was an air and sea cargo transportation company, which mainly worked in the near East and Africa. He was a contractor of President of Liberia Charles Taylor, but also provided services to the United Nations in Sudan and the United States military operations in Iraq. Both the UN and US knew of the connection with Taylor, but did not ask Bout to cease working with him or make any attempt to disrupt these supplies, despite all the crimes Taylor was subsequently accused of.
As far back as the beginning of the 1990s weapons deliveries were being made to Africa, to all the different sides in the ongoing civil wars, through Bout’s company as it was not a political organisation but a logistics one, working with the US government, whose dealings were known by that government. It was soon after this that Bout was publicly named the “merchant of death” and the most powerful weapons seller on the planet. The British government joined in by accusing him of opening a weapons corridor running through Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine for the benefit of Liberia and Angola, as if it had found this out all by itself.
The United States opened an investigation against Bout, officially because his trade hindered democracy in the Congo, although the same US government did not think employing him as a contractor was hindering democracy in other places. He was then arrested in Bangkok after the hotel meeting. The first case against him was dismissed, he was discharged by the Thailand courts, but new charges were filed on February 17, 2010 based on US Federal Court indictments and lots of pressure by the US State Department on the Thai authorities.
Determined to get its man, the US finally succeeded, but by means which were illegal themselves and were not connected to the allegations being made against him. But the interesting thing here is the mention of Eastern Europe. Linking Bout with that part of the world was designed to make out that anything he did there was illegal. So what, exactly, was he doing there, and with whom?
Friends in low places
Viktor Bout has a connection with at least one East European country, Georgia, which was not reported outside Georgia due to a US media blackout. This was exposed in an investigative report by journalist Natia Mikiashvili, broadcast in 2011, which looked into some of the dealings of Temur Alasania, the uncle of – who else? – Georgian president of the time Mikheil Saakashvili.
The report detailed the seizing of an Illyushin Il-76 in Bangkok on December 12, 2009. This contained 40 tonnes of military equipment, including mortars and antitank and portable zenith-rocket propelled systems, which intelligence experts in Georgia thought were intended for South Sudan and Pakistan, both allies of the United States.
The plane had been registered in Batumi, Georgia, and flown via South Korea. It was leased to a Ukrainian company affiliated with SP Trading. This is one of the airlines allegedly run by Victor Bout, but its named operational managers were connected to both Temur Alasania and Saakashvili’s Defence Minister David Kezerashvili, now on the run, who France has refused to extradite and Interpol has refused to continue pursuing.
Around the same time a plane containing weapons crashed in Congo, hence the accusation that Bout was trying to “hinder democracy” there. It killed several Georgian citizens who were mysteriously on board. On August 17, 2009 a ship flying under the Panamanian flag was seized carrying contraband cargo, and 13 Georgian sailors arrested. The captain, an American, took responsibility for the arms on board and the case disappeared, but why Georgians were involved at all was never explained.
All these things happened because these individuals and means of transport were all part of the same transit mechanism, which had been set up by the intelligence services of the United States and its NATO partners, using logistics companies like Bout’s and compliant governments, like that of Georgia. There is a case for saying that Saakashvili was at least guilty of the manslaughter of the Georgians who died in the Congo crash, as he is clearly implicated in their use in this operation. But he too is escaping justice, for now, while Viktor Bout is in jail.
Two types of plane are most commonly registered in Georgia: the Illyushin-76s used in arms trafficking and planes contracted to the UN in Africa. This is because they are the same planes and same pilots. When they are not flying UN peacekeeping missions, carrying food, aid workers, etc, the same aircraft are engaged in the illicit transport of weapons and other restricted goods. They are operated by the Batumi-based company Air West, using documents from New Zealand and Hong Kong to supply arms to various countries. They originally derived from a private company registered in Swaziland via American front companies in California and Armenia, but the Swazi company is now owned by Air West.
Whatever involvement Bout had with arms trafficking is not his responsibility alone. He worked hand in hand with the same US and UN which have now locked him up. If such activities are illegal for him, they are all the more illegal for the countries and agencies which long paid him to conduct them, or turn a blind eye to what the planes he allegedly operated were also being used for. Bout must have known this too, long before he was arrested, but equally had a right to expect protection as he had agreed to work with them in the first place.
So is Bout the Merchant of Death or just another fall guy, like Amir Ardebili and all the heads of government the US has installed and then destroyed? We may never know exactly who was really behind the operations Bout was allegedly involved in but not actually convicted for. But the fact he was entrapped in the way he was, by the people he was, and his case has been so vigorously misrepresented for so long, suggests that whoever they were, the White House is still paying their wages.
Henry Kamens, columnist, expert on Central Asia and Caucasus, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.