Trial of ‘Merchant of Death’ opens in New York

By Larry Neumeister ,AP

NEW YORK — A wealthy former Soviet military officer dubbed the “Merchant of Death” was willing to sell “staggering quantities” of weapons and explosives to anti-American rebels to make millions of dollars, a prosecutor told jurors Wednesday as his trial got under way. Assistant U.S. Attorney Brendan McGuire pointed at Viktor Bout in U.S. District Court in Manhattan as he accused him of promising to deliver 100 surface-to-air missiles, 20,000 AK-47 rifles, 20,000 fragmentary grenades, 740 mortars, 350 sniper rifles, 5 tons of C-4 explosives and 10 million rounds of ammunition in a shipment of weapons destined for Colombia in 2008. “This man, Viktor Bout, agreed to provide all of it to a foreign terrorist organization he believes was going to kill Americans,” McGuire said in his opening statements. The prosecutor added that Bout did not know he was trapped in a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) sting operation and that the two men he was dealing with were working for the U.S. government. Bout, estimated to be worth as much as US$6 billion, was brought to the United States for trial on four conspiracy charges last year from Thailand, where he fought extradition after his March 2008 arrest after meeting with two DEA informants who posed as officials of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, also known as FARC.

Bout has been accused — though not in this court case — of supplying weapons that fueled civil wars in South America, the Middle East and Africa, with clients ranging from Liberia’s Charles Taylor to Moammar Gadhafi to the Taliban government that ran Afghanistan.

McGuire said Bout, 44, had the experience, the will and the means to deliver “staggering quantities of weapons and explosives” to the rebels. “Why? For the money,” McGuire said. He said prosecutors would play hours of taped conversations for jurors so they could hear Bout talking about the arms deal. He said the jurors would hear testimony from a former close friend of Bout’s who introduced him to the two DEA sources. Also slated to testify are the two paid informants who posed as FARC officials. McGuire said virtually all of their conversations with Bout were recorded.

The prosecutor said Bout was enthusiastic about the arms deal, especially when the DEA informants explained that they planned to kill American pilots who were in their way. Defense lawyer Albert Dayan, given his turn before the jury, said the government had it all wrong. He told the jury that Bout was agreeing with whatever the DEA operatives were saying so that he could sell two transport planes for US$5 million. He said Bout lost his transport business and had turned to real estate after the U.N. blocked his travels. “Viktor was baiting them along with the promise of arms, hoping just to sell his planes,” he said. U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin warned jurors not to reveal on social media websites that they’re on the case. She had them sign a pledge not to research the case online.