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Alleged Arms Dealer's Past Debated Before Trial

This image provided by the Drug Enforcement Administration shows Russian arms trafficking suspect Viktor Bout in U.S. custody after being extradited and flown from Bangkok to New York to face terrorism charges.
This image provided by the Drug Enforcement Administration shows Russian arms trafficking suspect Viktor Bout in U.S. custody after being extradited and flown from Bangkok to New York to face terrorism charges.

A Russian businessman accused of being one of the world's most notorious arms dealers is due in a federal court in New York on Wednesday for an important pretrial hearing.

Law enforcement authorities have been chasing Viktor Bout for decades, tracking how he went from a little-known Soviet military officer in the 1980s to a multimillionaire who allegedly provided assault weapons to brutal regimes in Angola and the Congo in the late 1990s.

Bout became one of the world's most-wanted men and was dubbed the "Merchant of Death." In 2008, Drug Enforcement Administration agents finally nabbed Bout in a sting operation in Bangkok.

The agents pretended to represent a Colombian rebel group called the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and they said they were looking for weapons to attack government targets.

In a news conference last year, Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara described the shopping list Bout had allegedly promised to fill as the envy of some small countries.

"[It included] more than 700 surface-to-air missiles, 5,000 AK-47 assault rifles, anti-personnel land mines, C4 explosives and literally millions of rounds of ammunition," Bharara said in October.

DEA Chief of Operations Thomas Harrigan says that at the time of his arrest, Bout oversaw operations capable of delivering enough weapons to launch rebellions, fuel revolutions and slaughter untold thousands of people.

Court Hearing On The Defendant's Past

On Wednesday, federal prosecutors will ask a judge to let them present evidence to a jury of Bout's involvement in weapons trafficking all over the world. But Bout says the U.S. Justice Department is stretching the law too far to prosecute him.

A key issue before U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin will be whether prosecutors can use Bout's long record as an international arms dealer against him in court.

Bout's lawyer, Albert Dayan, says not so fast.

"The prosecutors have revealed that they intend to introduce evidence in the trial designed to besmirch Bout's character and prejudice jurors against him — evidence of purported events occurring as long ago as 1997 and completely unconnected to the charged crimes," Dayan told NPR in a cellphone interview outside the facility where Bout is being held.

But federal prosecutors argue that Bout's past is a critical part of the story. They say they need to show a jury that Bout had the ability to make good on his promises to the undercover agents, and that he could easily get his hands on deadly weapons and fly them into conflict zones.

A Notorious Reputation

Not every run-of-the-mill arms dealer can do that, government lawyers say. And Bout is no ordinary man: A fictionalized version of his life made it all the way to movie screens in 2005, when Nicolas Cage played a character inspired by Bout in the film Lord of War.

The U.S. Justice Department spent years trying to build a case against the real-life Bout and to get the government in Thailand, where he was arrested, to send him to New York to face trial.

Dayan, Bout's Queens, N.Y.-based lawyer, says it was a vendetta.

"In our opinion, for political reasons, the United States government caused the arrest of Viktor Bout on the basis of wholly created and fraudulent charges, [and] caused him to be extradited to the United States by the exertion of enormous political pressure," Dayan says.

Bout's case has some similarities to an earlier prosecution in New York of international arms dealer Monzer al-Kassar, who was also caught up in a DEA sting operation.

Ira Lee Sorkin, an attorney at Lowenstein Sandler in New York who defended al-Kassar, tells NPR that the law doesn't leave a lot of room for doubt.

"The statute clearly makes reference to the fact that if one is engaged in an act or a conspiracy to harm U.S. citizens or U.S. military, wherever they may be on this Earth, that gives the U.S. courts jurisdiction," Sorkin says.

But he adds that he thinks al-Kassar was singled out for a sting because of conduct that was perceived to be illegal, improper or immoral in the past.

"And that's why the DEA went after him," says Sorkin.

Bout's lawyer is making the same argument. But it's not clear how far it will get him in a trial that could begin as early as September. Prosecutors say Bout faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years in prison and a maximum sentence of life in prison if he's convicted.

For now, Bout lives in the secure Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan, where he has complained about not getting enough fruit and vegetables in his diet.

Prosecutors aren't sympathetic. But they have agreed to make one concession in the trial: They say they'll delete any references to Bout's inflammatory nicknames, the "Merchant of Death" and the "Lord of War," in recordings undercover agents made with Bout and his associates.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
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