Arguments due in alleged arms dealer's trial
Opening arguments were due Wednesday at the start of the New York trial of Viktor Bout, an alleged Russian arms dealer described by the United States as "one of the most dangerous men" in the world.
The former Soviet military officer is accused of attempting to sell a huge arsenal, including hundreds of surface-to-air missiles to US agents in Thailand posing as members of Colombia's FARC leftist guerrilla organization.
After federal Judge Shira Scheindlin oversaw jury selection from a pool of about 80 prospective jurors Tuesday, lawyers were set to present their cases for the first time.
Throughout jury selection, Bout's wife and daughter sat in the back of the wood-paneled courtroom as Sheindlin gave jurors instructions on a case that sounds like the plot of a thriller, with references to powerful weapons, FARC and faraway locales including Russia, Africa and Colombia.
The mustachioed Russian has pleaded not guilty. And although his New York legal team concedes he did run a fleet of cargo planes, he has insisted he never sold or brokered so much as a single bullet.
He faces up to life in prison if convicted.
Thinner and more pale than at the time of his 2008 arrest in Thailand, Bout wore a dark suit, white shirt and blue tie to jury selection. It was the first time he has been seen in his own clothes, rather than prison garb, since he was extradited to the United States in 2010.
He remained serious faced through most of the proceedings, occasionally turning to look at the jury pool and to nod and signal to his wife and daughter.
Scheindlin and defense lawyers have expressed concern that Bout may be so notorious and his alleged crimes so outlandish that it may be difficult to ensure an impartial jury.
The concern prompted the judge to take the highly unusual decision to make jurors sign a statement swearing they will abstain from researching Bout's case while serving.
That instruction is given in every trial to prevent jurors from adding their own knowledge of a case to what's presented in court, but it is nearly always made orally.
Bout operated in the background of the shady transport business he admits he commanded in Africa, but his notoriety has grown since to near-legendary levels.
Violence-filled movie "Lord of War," starring Hollywood actor Nicholas Cage, was inspired by Bout's life, while the chief US Drug Enforcement Agency agent who organized the sting in Thailand has called the defendant "one of the most dangerous men on the face of the Earth."
Although they represent only a small percentage of all his alleged dealings, the charges against Bout in New York are hair-raising.
According to the US government, Bout told US agents he mistakenly believed to be FARC representatives that he could deliver 700 anti-aircraft missiles, 5,000 assault rifles and millions of rounds of ammunition, in addition to land mines and explosives.
The weapons were supposedly being sought to enable the FARC to down American military helicopters operating in Colombia, opening Bout to charges that he conspired to aid a US-designated terror group and to kill US personnel.
Bout's more 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.
"Those Russian aircraft were built like flying dump trucks. He could move this stuff and drop it with pinpoint accuracy to any desert, to any jungle, to any other remote place in the world. Right into the hands of what I refer to as the potpourri of global scum," DEA agent Michael Braun told CBS.
During her jury instructions Tuesday, the judge noted that Bout had been the subject of international travel and financial sanctions as governments tried to cripple his business activities. But even so, she said: "You may draw no inference."
"You will hear that many years ago Mr Bout may have been involved in arms trafficking and/or arms transportation in Africa and that activity did not violate US laws," Scheindlin added.
The judge also noted that prosecution witnesses would include a paid informant and a former comrade of Bout who pleaded guilty and was cooperating with the US government.
One key prosecution witness is a former operative of the South African military during the apartheid regime who was caught on tape boasting that he'd "mowed down" blacks.
The trial is expected to run at least through late October.
© 2011 AFP