US finds Russian 'merchant of death' guilty

2nd November 2011, Comments 0 comments

A US jury Wednesday found a Russian arms dealer, dubbed "the merchant of death," guilty of conspiring to sell missiles to terrorists, in a federal case which has sparked tensions with Moscow.

Viktor Bout, 44, who was extradited from Thailand to the United States in 2010, was charged on four counts including conspiring to kill US service personnel.

The judge set sentencing for February 8, and Bout now faces a minimum of 25 years in jail and possibly up to life in prison.

But his lawyer, Albert Dayan, said Bout would appeal.

"It's definitely not the end of the process. We will appeal," Dayan told reporters outside the courtroom. "We believe this is not the end. We have a chance."

Bout, dressed in a grey suit with a white shirt, looked despondent as the jury handed down its verdict after deliberating for less than eight hours.

He hugged Dayan after the verdict was read and then was led back to a detention center.

But reaction was quick from rights groups who have been monitoring the case, of the man who allegedly supplied arms to some of the world's bloodiest conflicts.

"It is a good day when the worlds most notorious arms trafficker is put out of business and off the market for good," said Oistein Thorsen, a campaigner with Oxfam International.

"However, it is tragic that because we have no global treaty regulating the activities of arms dealers, many other unscrupulous dealers and brokers will continue to operate."

The case revolves around a sophisticated US sting operation to corner Bout, a veteran of a shady international air freight business that specialized in African conflict zones.

US agents posing as high-ranking members of Colombia's FARC guerrilla group, which is listed by Washington as a terrorist organization, told Bout at a 2008 meeting in Bangkok that they wanted to buy a huge arsenal.

Among the weapons requested were anti-aircraft missiles that they said would be used to shoot down American pilots helping the Colombian military.

In secretly taped conversations, Bout said he could supply the weapons. However, his lawyer said in court he was playing a charade in order to further his real goal, which was simply to sell two cargo planes.

The mustachioed Russian is alleged to have been the world's biggest black market arms dealer in the post-Cold War period. However, he says he worked exclusively as a private air transporter -- sometimes carrying legal shipments of arms -- and was living openly in Moscow.

He was arrested at the scene of the 2008 meeting with the US agents, then extradited from Thailand to the United States after a bitter legal battle.

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.

The violent movie "Lord of War," starring Hollywood actor Nicholas Cage, was inspired by his life, while the chief US Drug Enforcement Agency agent who organized the Thailand sting has called the defendant "one of the most dangerous men on the face of the Earth."

According to the US government, Bout told the US agents 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 allegedly includes pouring weapons into wars in Afghanistan, Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Sudan.

"The verdict in the Viktor Bout trial closes the book on one of the most prolific enablers of war, mass atrocities and terrorism in the post-Cold War era," arms expert Kathi Lynn Austin said in a statement.

"We should all be grateful that the world is safer now that the man who armed the hot spots of the globe is behind bars."

© 2011 AFP

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