Viktor Bout trial climaxes in final battle
A US prosecutor wrapped up the case against Russia's Viktor Bout on Monday, telling a New York jury that the man dubbed the "merchant of death" tried to sell terrorists a mountain of weapons.
Assistant US Attorney Anjan Sahni ridiculed defense arguments that Bout, a veteran of the shady air transportation business, was only trying to sell two airplanes, not a vast arsenal of weapons to US agents posing as leftist Colombian guerrillas in 2008.
"The defendant repeatedly said he was ready, willing and able to carry out this massive weapons deal," Sahni said in a courtroom packed with journalists and federal agents witnessing the climax of a trial that has angered Russia.
The defense argument, Sahni said, "makes absolutely no sense."
However, in an impassioned, if often rambling final defense, Bout's lawyer, Albert Dayan, said his client just wanted to sell his Soviet-designed transport airplanes, which would not have been illegal under US law.
Dayan said Bout had been "trapped" by the US government into appearing to also want to sell surface-to-air missiles, grenade launchers and other armaments.
"They hooked him and they trapped him," Dayan said.
The opposing summations presented two interpretations of Bout's behavior during a sophisticated US sting operation that took three months to unspool, ending in March 2008 with a meeting in a Bangkok hotel where the Russian met with what he was told were Colombian FARC guerrillas, a US-designated terrorist group.
The fake FARC members -- in reality agents for the US Drug Enforcement Administration -- told Bout they wanted a vast arsenal of sophisticated weapons, including anti-aircraft missiles to shoot down US pilots aiding the Colombian military.
Bout, 44, is charged with conspiring to sell missiles to terrorists and to kill American service personnel. He faces up to life in prison if convicted.
In his final presentation, Sahni highlighted hours of wiretapped phone conversations and streams of intercepted emails and SMS messages that he said clearly showed Bout conspired to sell the arms.
Sahni pointed to secret tape recordings of the meeting in which Bout clearly appears to negotiate over staggering quantities of weaponry, not just the two planes which he says he also wanted to sell. "He was never in it just for the planes," he said.
Characterizing the weapons discussed in Bangkok as "enough for an army," Sahni said: "Bout knows what it takes to arm a conflict and he's ready to do it now for FARC."
Bout sat grim-faced in court alongside his lawyers. His wife and teenage daughter sat behind him in the packed audience.
The mustachioed Russian, dubbed by critics the "merchant of death," 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.
His lawyer said the case was "unfair" and "tragic."
Dayan said Bout was out of the arms business by 2008 and merely saw the opportunity to sell off the last two cargo planes in his possession.
Also, Dayan said Bout never believed the people he met were with the FARC, imagining them to be Latin American drug dealers. The Russian then pretended to discuss the weapons simply in order to play along with his clients and push through the sale of the planes.
"He had to sound convincing. He had to sound serious, because he hadn't got paid (for the planes) yet. It's all about getting paid," Dayan said.
"What did he do? Did he accept a dime for the arms?" Dayan asked.
On Tuesday, prosecutors will be allowed to get the last word with a rebuttal. Then the case goes to the jury.
© 2011 AFP