Viktor Bout's former friend testifies against him

26th October 2011, Comments 0 comments

One of Viktor Bout's closest former associates in an alleged global arms smuggling empire testified against his old friend Tuesday in New York.

Andrew Smulian, a white-haired 70-year-old with British and South African citizenship, was asked by a federal prosecutor who else had been with him when he was caught in a US sting operation in 2008.

"Mr Viktor Bout," Smulian replied in his clipped South African accent.

Smulian did not look at Bout as he testified, but before the questioning began, the Russian defendant could be seen staring intently at his former comrade, who, like him, sports a moustache.

Smulian and Bout were both arrested in March 2008 in a Bangkok hotel while meeting with US agents pretending to represent leaders from the Colombian Marxist guerrilla group FARC.

In the meeting, which was recorded, Bout offered to sell the fake FARC team a huge arsenal of weapons, including surface-to-air missiles that were supposedly to be used against US helicopters helping the Colombian military.

Bout has pleaded not guilty and says he never was serious about the weapons offer and only intended to sell two cargo planes.

But Smulian, who like Bout has a long history in the murky world of air cargo in war zones and other trouble spots, is set to testify that Bout is lying.

Smulian pleaded guilty in July 2008 to the same charges of conspiracy to kill Americans and conspiracy to help a US-designated terrorist organization. He now hopes to be given a light sentence in exchange for his cooperation.

A maximum sentence -- also faced by Bout -- would be life in prison. However, in return for agreeing to testify for the government, a judge could decide to sentence Smulian to "time served," he said.

At the start of his testimony, Smulian said he had first met Bout in 1997, sparking a close relationship in which they met 75 to 80 times a year and Smulian helped Bout set up a private air base in South Africa.

A decade later, Smulian said he had drifted apart from the charismatic Russian and found himself living in Tanzania in "very bad" economic state.

It was then that US Drug Enforcement Administration agents posing as FARC members first suggested that Smulian lead them to Bout to conduct a huge arms deal -- a proposal the ageing former gun runner and South African intelligence officer eagerly accepted.

"You were playing head games with Smulian," Bout's attorney, Albert Dayan, told one of those undercover agents in earlier testimony Tuesday. "He was old, he was broke."

"No," the operative, Carlos Sagastume, replied.

© 2011 AFP

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