Prosecutors say greed doomed Russian arms trafficker

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Anti-aircraft missiles, millions of bullets, tons of explosive -- prosecutors say so-called "merchant of death" Viktor Bout was ready to deliver weapons by the planeload before being arrested in a sting operation worthy of James Bond.

In his opening statement at the start of a closely watched trial in New York, Assistant US Attorney Brendan McGuire said Bout was doomed by greed when he tried to sell undercover agents an arsenal that he expected to be used against US pilots in Colombia.

But presenting his own case for the first time, a lawyer for Bout, 44, said the mustachioed Russian had been framed for crimes he never committed.

The lawyers clashed on the first day of testimony in a Manhattan federal court trying Bout on charges that he conspired to arm Colombia's FARC guerrillas -- designated by Washington as a terrorist group -- with the specific intent of downing US helicopters.

Assistant US Attorney Brendan McGuire began by recounting to a courtroom packed with journalists, law enforcement agents and fellow prosecutors a long, lethal shopping list.

"A hundred surface-to-air missiles, 20,000 AK47 machine-guns, 20,000 fragmentation grenades, 740 mortars, 350 sniper rifles, 10 million rounds of ammunition, and five tons of C4 explosives," McGuire rattled off.

Dramatically, McGuire then paced away from the jury to Bout, jabbing his finger at the ex-Soviet military man, who sat in a neat gray suit.

"This man agreed to provide all of it to a foreign terrorist organization," McGuire said, adding he put it "into the hands of men that told him they needed to kill American pilots."

According to McGuire, Bout truly believed at a meeting in Thailand in 2008 that he was attempting to sell FARC representatives the arsenal and that the intention was to bring down US choppers supporting the Colombian military.

In fact, the men he met were not Colombian guerrillas but paid agents of the US Drug Enforcement Agency and the meeting was the culmination of an elaborate, globe-trotting sting operation to trap Bout, long accused of being the world's biggest black market arms dealer. He was arrested at that meeting and in 2010 was extradited to New York.

"He jumped at the opportunity," McGuire said. "Why? For the money."

Bout has pleaded not guilty and says that for years he ran an air transportation business with old Soviet cargo planes -- at times carrying other people's weaponry -- but that he never once did an arms deal.

Presenting his case, defense lawyer Albert Dayan described the sting operation, which involved meetings in the Caribbean island of Curacao, Copenhagen, Bucharest, Moscow and finally Bangkok, as a confidence trick.

According to Dayan, Bout had already given up his air business and had turned to real estate dealing in his native Moscow.

When the undercover DEA agents approached him through a former intermediary, he saw an opportunity to sell off his last two airplanes -- but he had no intention or interest in dealing with weapons.

"Viktor never walked in and said 'I want to kill Americans,'" Dayan said.

Dayan called Bout "a man wrongfully accused in our country, thousands of miles away from his home."

"The simple, very profound truth is that Viktor Bout never wanted, never intended to sell arms," he said.

Sitting in court were Bout's wife and teenage daughter, who sat mostly silently and without expression as they listened to a translation of proceedings on headphones.

The trial is expected to last through the rest of the month. Witnesses will include Bout's former associate, who has pleaded guilty and is cooperating with the US government in hopes of receiving a lighter sentence.

The undercover operatives -- former criminals who are paid large sums of money by government agencies for such work -- will also testify.

The arrest and extradition of Bout angered Russia, which for years sheltered him, even after a UN body imposed international travel and financial sanctions on the businessman.

Bout is known to his legions of critics as the "merchant of death" and his life was the basis for a Hollywood movie called "Lord of War," starring actor Nicholas Cage.

Many of the true details of his life remain secret, although Dayan did say in court that his client spent two years in a top Soviet academy for foreign languages and served as a military advisor in Africa -- a resume that would indicate links to the GRU military intelligence, KGB or other Soviet special services.

He opened his air freight business during the Soviet collapse and by the age of 30 ran a fleet of more than 30 cargo planes, according to Dayan.

"It was his business to transport anything and everything," he said.

© 2011 AFP

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