'Merchant of Death' says he turned down US plea bargain

2nd January 2011, Comments 0 comments

A suspected Russian arms dealer known as the "Merchant of Death" said in a rare interview published Sunday that he rejected a US plea bargain offer that would have exposed his alleged contact list.

Viktor Bout also accused the US authorities of waging a well-orchestrated smear campaign and said from his New York prison that he did not expect justice in the United States.

"I was offered a softer sentence and a shorter prison term if I told them everything I knew about my contacts in Russia and other countries," Bout told RIA Novosti in comments relayed to the state news agency by Russia's deputy consul in New York.

"But I replied that I had nothing to say about the things they were interested in."

The 43-year-old former Soviet military translator said the plea bargain offer was extended by US Drug Enforcement Administration agents who transported him from Thailand in November.

But the man who escaped US authorities for nearly a decade said that he declined the offer and has since been left alone.

"There have been no interrogations," he said. "There has been nothing that can be interpreted as pressure."

Bout -- whose story inspired the 2005 Nicolas Cage film "Lord of War" -- was arrested in a sting operation in Bangkok by Thai and US forces in March 2008 and extradited to New York following a tortuous legal battle.

Military analysts in Moscow said the arrest was a particularly sensitive blow for Russia because it threatened to expose potential links between government officials and the illicit arms trade.

Bout is suspected by the United Nations of selling arms to everyone from the Taliban to Liberia's former president Charles Taylor.

The formal charges filed against him in a Manhattan federal court include terrorism and conspiracy to possess and use anti-aircraft missiles.

The indictment also accuses Bout of assembling a fleet of cargo planes in the 1990s and transporting weapons to insurgents in violence-wracked countries ranging from Africa and South America to the Middle East.

US Attorney General Eric Holder recently called Bout "one of the world's most prolific arms traffickers".

Russia initially fought Bout's extradition to the United States. But the Kremlin's top foreign policy adviser said following Bout's move to New York that he "should answer the questions that US justice has for him."

Bout has insisted on his innocence and accused the United States of trying to make him a scapegoat for various international problems.

"I think that the court will definitely be biased and not objective. I say this based on the fact that the US government intentionally distorted facts about my life and work in its charge sheet," Bout said.

He added that the politically charged atmosphere made it impossible for him to get a fair hearing.

"For the past 10 years, the US authorities have been directly and through the media waging war against me and my family. We have been buried under a torrent of lies," Bout said.

"In such conditions, no one here -- including the judge -- can be impartial."

Bout also complained of missing his homeland and described being treated like an "especially dangerous mental patient".

"They have full control over your every move. There is absolutely no sun -- no air or the sky."

Russia's deputy consul Alexander Otchaynov said Bout -- a vegetarian -- was particularly unhappy about the prison diet and the fact that he was only permitted to make one phone call per month.

But Otchaynov said things improved once Bout was given access to a radio.

"News from Russia helps immensely," the deputy consul said. "It is good to have a radio."

Bout's wife Alla also told a Moscow radio station that she was about to fly to New York to offer her husband moral support.

Moscow Echo reported on its website that US authorities had already granted the entire Bout family entry visas.

© 2011 AFP

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