Russia's Viktor Bout never dealt weapons: lawyer
Was Viktor Bout, the so-called "merchant of death" a global arms dealer? Not at all, his lawyer said Wednesday: he was just in the "transportation business."
The flat denial that Bout -- a former Soviet air force officer accused in the United States of trying to send a vast arsenal to Colombian guerrillas -- had anything to do with weapons sales came in a pretrial hearing in New York federal court.
"Selling? Never. He never sold, he never brokered," attorney Albert Dayan said.
The statement appeared to surprise Judge Shira Scheindlin, who will preside over the trial.
"Your position is that he's not an arms dealer," Scheindlin said.
"Absolutely," Dayan replied.
"What was his business then?" asked the judge.
"He was a transporter. He was in the air transportation business."
Bout was in court, sporting his signature mustache and wearing a dark blue prisoner's smock.
He has pleaded not guilty to trying to supply Colombia's FARC rebels, who wanted surface-to-air missiles capable of shooting down US planes.
The United States' government accuses him of hatching a deal to send more 700 missiles, 5,000 assault rifles and millions of rounds of ammunition, in addition to land mines and explosives. The deal was in fact a sting set up by US agents who then arrested Bout in Thailand in March 2008.
The Colombia episode was only the last in a long line of alleged weapons trades that if true would make Bout one of the most prolific private arms dealers ever.
Operating a fleet of ex-Soviet airplanes that allegedly poured weapons into African wars, his reputation earned him the popular nickname "merchant of death."
Nicholas Cage starred in a film inspired by his life called "Lord of War" -- a movie Bout has been quoted as calling "pure fiction, fantasy and fabrication."
Bout was extradited from Thailand last November after a long legal battle that strained US-Russian relations. He is being held in the high security wing of a Manhattan detention center.
During Wednesday's hearing, Scheindlin began the process of ruling how much detail from Bout's colorful past can be admitted during the upcoming trial on the narrower allegations of attempting to arm the FARC.
She said that certain episodes of alleged arms drops to African countries like Angola may be brought up to demonstrate the suspect's dealings. Prosecution lawyers will also be allowed to mention that the United Nations put him on a list of people banned from international travel.
However certain details that Scheindlin said could unfairly prejudice the jury against Bout will be barred, including that some alleged arms shipments involved Libya and Rwanda.
Defense lawyers had asked the judge to bar testimony by pilots who worked for Bout and say they saw the Russian's planes ship weapons to UNITA rebels in Angola and to the Congo in the 1990s.
However, Scheindlin ruled the witness would be allowed, as it showed Bout's "ability to drop significant amounts of weapons in a war zone."
© 2011 AFP