Accused global arms dealer Bout's trial set to open
The trial of Viktor Bout, a Russian ex-army officer alleged to have overseen the world's biggest private arms dealing network, starts in New York on Tuesday with jury selection.
Bout was brought to the United States in 2010 from Thailand in the wake of a daring sting operation by US agents in a Thai hotel in 2008, followed by a bitter extradition battle that raised US-Russian tensions.
Dubbed by US officials "the merchant of death," Bout is accused of attempting to sell undercover US agents surface-to-air missiles and other weapons for use by Colombia's FARC rebels against US anti-narcotics personnel.
He has pleaded not guilty.
Bout's New York legal team concedes that he did run a fleet of cargo planes acquired after the Soviet break-up, but insists he never sold or brokered weapons. He faces up to life in prison if found guilty.
Jury selection from a pool of 80 will feature careful screening by Judge Shira Scheindlin and lawyers from both sides, amid concerns that Bout's notoriety may make it difficult for him to get a fair trial.
In a highly unusual move, Scheindlin said she will make the 12 jurors and alternates sign a statement swearing they will abstain from attempting to read about the defendant on the Internet or anywhere else.
Security will be tight for the trial, which could last up to three weeks.
The US government said Bout told the US agents he mistakenly believed to be FARC representatives that he could deliver 700 missiles, 5,000 assault rifles and millions of rounds of ammunition, in addition to land mines and explosives.
Bout's extended resume -- which is not directly at issue in the trial -- allegedly includes pouring weapons into wars in Afghanistan, Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Sudan.
The violence-filled movie "Lord of War," starring Hollywood actor Nicholas Cage, was inspired by Bout's alleged exploits.
And the chief US Drug Enforcement Agency operative who organized the sting in Thailand told CBS television that the defendant is "one of the most dangerous men on the face of the earth."
Anna MacDonald, an Oxfam campaigner on arms trade, said that regardless of the outcome of the trial, unchecked weapons trading remains a major problem.
"Supplying weapons and ammunitions to the world's worst conflict zones is morally reprehensible," she said in a statement.
"We need global rules for all stages of the arms trade, from those that do the deals through to those that fly the planes. It should not be simple to fly planes into war zones and fuel conflict."
© 2011 AFP