'Merchant Of Death' Gets 25 Years For Arms Dealing

Viktor Bout built a worldwide air cargo operation, amassing a fleet of more than 60 transport planes, hundreds of companies and a fortune in excess of $6 billion.

NEW YORK (AP) — The notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout, dubbed the Merchant of Death, made it clear he had heard enough in court, although a federal prosecutor was only two minutes into an argument urging a harsh prison sentence.

"It's a lie!" Bout blurted out in English — a rare show of raw defiance for a defendant facing a possible life term on Thursday in federal court in Manhattan.

Despite Bout's outburst and his insistence that he was framed, he received only the mandatory minimum 25 years in prison in a case that demonstrated the U.S. government's determination to bring him to justice.

The way federal agents went about capturing Bout — an elaborate sting that lured him to Thailand — appeared to play in his favor at his sentencing.

U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin said 25 years — not the life sentence wanted by prosecutors — was sufficient and appropriate because there was no evidence the 45-year-old Bout would have been charged with seeking to harm Americans if not approached by informants posing as Colombian rebels.

"But for the approach made through this determined sting operation, there is no reason to believe Bout would ever have committed the charged crimes," she said.

Bout's sentencing came four years after his arrest in Bangkok, where he was held before his extradition to the U.S. for trial in late 2010, and months after a jury convicted him of four conspiracy charges relating to his support of a Colombian terrorist organization.

The judge also ordered a $15 million forfeiture.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was quoted by the Russian news agency ITAR-Tass as saying Friday in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, that he will discuss the sentence with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"We are not being guided by a desire to take revenge, but by the desire to ensure the observance and respect of the rights of our countryman. We will actively support the appeal that Bout's lawyers plan and in any case will secure his return to his homeland."

"We have legal instruments for this in relations with the United States," he is quoted as saying.

Separately, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement: "The Russian Foreign Ministry is taking all necessary measures for the return of Viktor Bout to his homeland, using existing international legal mechanisms. This matter, without a doubt, will remain among our priorities in the Russian-American agenda."

The statement called the sentence "baseless and biased."

"In spite of the unreliability of the evidence, the illegal character of his arrest with the participation of U.S. special services agents in Thailand and the subsequent extradition, American legal officials, having carried out an obvious political order, ignored the arguments of lawyers and numerous appeals from all levels in defense of this Russian citizen," it said.

For nearly two decades, Bout built a worldwide air cargo operation, amassing a fleet of more than 60 transport planes, hundreds of companies and a fortune reportedly in excess of $6 billion — exploits that were the main inspiration for the Nicholas Cage film "Lord of War."

His aircraft flew from Afghanistan to Angola, carrying everything from raw minerals to gladiolas, drilling equipment to frozen fish. But, according to authorities, the network's specialty was black market arms — assault rifles, ammunition, anti-aircraft missiles, helicopter gunships and a full range of sophisticated weapons systems, almost always sourced from Russian stocks or from Eastern European factories.

In the months before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, U.S., British and United Nations authorities heard growing reports that Bout's planes and maintenance operations, then headquartered in the United Arab Emirates, were aiding the Taliban while it sheltered al-Qaida militants in Afghanistan. Bout later denied that he worked with the Taliban or al-Qaida — and denied ever participating in black market arms deals.

In 2008, while under economic sanctions and a U.N. travel ban, Bout was approached in Moscow by a close associate about supplying weapons on the black market to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

Bout was told that the group wanted to use drug-trafficking proceeds to pay for surface-to-air missiles and other weapons, making it clear it wanted to attack helicopter pilots and other Americans in Colombia, prosecutors said. He finalized the phony deal with the two DEA informants in a bugged hotel room in Bangkok in March 2008.

Throughout the case, Bout maintained he was a legitimate businessman who wasn't selling arms when the American operatives came knocking.

But in court papers, federal prosecutors said the government initiated its investigation in 2007 because Bout "constituted a threat to the United States and to the international community based on his reported history of arming some of the world's most violent and destabilizing dictators and regimes."

The Merchant of Death moniker was attached to Bout by a high-ranking minister at Britain's Foreign Office, who had drawn attention to his 1990s notoriety for running a fleet of aging Soviet-era cargo planes to conflict-ridden hotspots in Africa.

The nickname was included in the U.S. government's indictment of Bout, and U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara referenced it when he announced Bout's extradition in late 2010, saying: "The so-called Merchant of Death is now a federal inmate."

After the sentencing, Bharara in a statement called the sentence "a fitting coda for this career arms trafficker of the most dangerous order."


Associated Press Writer Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.

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