'Merchant of Death' to make court appearance

21st January 2011, Comments 0 comments

A suspected Russian arms dealer, called the "Merchant of Death," was due Friday to make only his second court appearance since being extradited from Thailand in a case that has strained relations between Washington and Moscow.

Viktor Bout, 44, is due for a pretrial hearing in New York federal court, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor's office said. The hearing had been scheduled earlier this month but was postponed.

A Russian former intelligence officer, Bout allegedly became the world's most prolific arms dealer, shipping plane loads of weapons to guerrilla organizations in Africa, South America and the Middle East. He claims he was an innocent air-cargo businessman.

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

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.

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

His capture after that covertly recorded business meeting provoked protests from Moscow.

Bout, who is being held without bail in a high-security detention center, 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 also predicted his upcoming trial will be "biased and non-objective."

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.

Russia initially fought the extradition to the United States. But the Kremlin's top foreign policy adviser said in November that Bout "should answer the questions that US justice has for him." He was extradited to the United States in November 2010 after more than two years of legal wrangling.

International aid group Oxfam, meanwhile, said 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.

© 2011 AFP

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