Viktor Bout lawyer assails undercover witness

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Accused Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout on Monday had to relive in court his dramatic downfall in a US sting operation, as his lawyer claimed a key prosecution witness was motivated by big money.

Bout listened intently in New York federal court as prosecutors played back secret recordings made at the climactic encounter in a three-month operation to trap the so-called "Lord of War" and "Merchant of Death."

During that 2008 meeting in Bangkok, the mustachioed Bout told men claiming to represent the Colombian narco-guerrilla organization FARC that he could procure them a huge arsenal of weapons, including missiles to shoot down American helicopters.

In fact, the men were undercover US agents and to Bout's surprise, the door of the hotel conference room burst open just after he had shaken hands on the alleged deal with a supposed FARC member named Carlos.

At that moment, the transcript of the recording reads like a script from an action movie:

"Hands up," an unidentified male says.

"You are under arrest," a voice says.

"Everybody hands up! Hands up!"

US prosecutors believe the three-month operation stretching from Latin America to Europe and Asia showed that Bout conspired to arm FARC, a US-designated terrorism group, with weapons that would then be turned against US servicemen.

Bout, a legendary player in the murky world of arms shipments to Africa's many wars, has pleaded not guilty. His lawyers say he was out of the cargo business by then and that any promises he made to selling weapons to the pretend FARC members were a ploy in aid of his real goal, which was to sell off the last two cargo planes in his possession.

The Russian's defense team got a chance to fire back Tuesday, when attorney Albert Dayan cross-examined Carlos, named in court as Carlos Sagastume.

Sagastume is a one-time Guatemalan military member who turned to drug trafficking, then to undercover work for US agencies. He revealed he had taken part in 150 US operations and been paid lavishly, including $7 million for a single previous case.

So far, for his work with Bout, he had received $250,000 from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), he said. Dayan suggested he was in for much more if Bout was found guilty.

"You have a financial stake in the outcome," Dayan said.

"I hope they will pay, but whether they pay, I do not know," Sagastume said.

The trial began almost two weeks ago and arguments are expected to wrap up at the start of next week.

Bout, the subject of a book "Merchant of Death" and reputedly the inspiration for a Hollywood movie called "Lord of War," faces life in prison if found guilty.

© 2011 AFP

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