Lawyers challenge 'Merchant of Death' trial

22nd January 2011, Comments 0 comments

Defense lawyers for the world's most notorious alleged arms trafficker, so-called "Merchant of Death" Viktor Bout, said Friday that his trial scheduled to start in September should be scrapped.

Bout, a Russian citizen extradited from Thailand last November, will go to trial starting September 12, Judge Schira Scheindlin announced at a hearing in New York.

However, the court will first hear several defense arguments that Bout's trial should be scrapped.

One of Bout's attorneys, Sabrina Shroff, told the hearing she would be filing a motion "to dismiss (the trial) for unlawful extradition."

Attorneys were also planning to challenge on grounds that Bout's alleged crimes did not take place on US soil.

This sets the stage for months of legal wrangling before a jury can be selected.

Meanwhile, Bout, 44, is being held in a high security section of a New York detention center. His lawyer complained of restricted access, saying "counsel has difficulty working with a client through a mesh cage."

The accused man, sporting his trademark mustache and wearing a dark prison smock, exchanged a few words with his wife Alla Bout, who was sitting in the courtroom.

After, she told AFP that her husband looked "terrible."

"Compared to two months ago he looks like a different person," she said, before being pursued by a crowd of Russian journalists into the icy streets outside the courthouse.

"He has a very strong spirit. He is a real Russian, he has real Russian character," she said later.

Bout -- whose story inspired the 2005 Nicolas Cage film "Lord of War" -- has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy to kill US nationals, to acquire an anti-aircraft missile and to support a terrorist group. If convicted, he faces between 25 years and life in prison.

A Russian former intelligence officer, he allegedly became a prolific arms dealer, shipping plane loads of weapons to guerrilla organizations in Africa, South America and the Middle East.

The United Nations suspects Bout of selling arms to everyone from the Taliban to Liberia's former president Charles Taylor.

Bout says he was an innocent air-cargo businessman. He lived openly in Moscow.

The charges stem from a US sting operation in Thailand in March 2008 in which Bout allegedly agreed to sell millions of dollars worth of weapons to the leftist guerilla group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

The weapons included surface-to-air missile systems that allegedly would be used to destroy US military helicopters on missions in Colombia.

His capture and his eventual extradition initially provoked bitter protests from Moscow.

Military analysts in Moscow have said his arrest was a particularly sensitive blow for Russia because it threatened to expose potential links between government officials and the illicit arms trade.

International aid group Oxfam says Bout's alleged arms empire reflected an international "legal vacuum."

"Arms traffickers can too easily navigate the patchwork of national arms regulations, fueling conflict while avoiding arrest and extradition, because of the lack of global regulation of the arms trade," Oxfam said in a statement.

Bout said in a rare interview with Russian state news agency RIA Novosti this month that he had rejected a US plea bargain offer of leniency in exchange for his alleged contact list.

He predicted his upcoming trial will be "biased and not objective."

© 2011 AFP

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