Viktor Bout's former friend testifies against him
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 Thailand 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 pretend FARC team a huge arsenal of weapons, including surface-to-air missiles that were touted as able to shoot down 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 as little as "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 operatives 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, countered.
Bout is a legend for his exploits in running an air cargo service that used old Soviet planes and delivered anything -- from frozen chickens to weapons -- anywhere.
His planes have dropped cargoes throughout Africa's vicious war zones, Afghanistan and reportedly even Iraq, where he helped supply US troops. A Hollywood movie called "Lord of War" is believed to have been based on the 44-year-old.
Smulian long operated in the same circles, though far less flamboyantly. He told the court that he dropped out of technical college in South Africa to enter the air transport business, moving "motor vehicles, food stuffs, arms, and passengers."
He then spent years moonlighting for the South African apartheid regime's military intelligence, echoing Bout's start in Soviet military intelligence.
However, when the phony FARC representatives made contact, Smulian needed work and their pitch -- to buy a huge quantity of firearms, missiles, and explosives -- aroused little suspicion.
What remains more of a mystery is how Bout, a canny and seasoned man who had spent several years living under protection of his native Russian government in Moscow, and not venturing abroad, was tempted to travel to Thailand for the deal.
His defense team claims Bout saw the trip as a chance to sell off the last two aircraft in his now defunct air freight company, and to move fully into his new business -- real estate.
But prosecutor Brendan McGuire sought to knock down that argument, asking Sagastume whether Smulian or Bout ever said "that the planes are the most important part of the deal?"
"No," Sagastume replied.
© 2011 AFP