BANGKOK, Thailand – The wife of a Russian businessman accused of conspiring to sell weapons to Colombian Marxist rebels said Tuesday that the only trip the couple had ever taken to Latin America was to learn the tango.
Alla Bout was testifying at an extradition hearing for Viktor Bout, a former Soviet air force officer dubbed "The Merchant of Death" who is reputed to have been one of the world's most prolific arms dealers.
Bout, 42, was arrested in Bangkok in March 2008 in the culmination of an elaborate sting operation in which U.S. agents posed as arms buyers for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC — classified as a terrorist organization by Washington.
U.S. prosecutors say Bout was offering a deadly arsenal of weapons, including more than 700 surface-to-air missiles, thousands of guns, high-tech helicopters, and airplanes outfitted with grenade launchers and missiles.
He has been indicted on four terrorism-related charges in New York, and could face a maximum penalty of life in prison. He has long been linked to some of the world's most notorious conflicts, allegedly supplying arms to former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor and Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, but denies any wrongdoing.
Alla Bout — who identified herself as a 45-year-old fashion designer — said she believed her husband was "a pawn in the chess game" between Russia and the United States, a reference to their geopolitical rivalry.
"I believe my husband does honest business," she told the Thai court. "We have been together 17 years. There is no reason for me to believe he has done anything illegal."
Although the U.S. indictment of Bout does not allege he traveled to Latin America to set up the deal, his wife sought to distance him from any suggestion of involvement in the area.
She said the only trip he made to the area was to Argentina for three days with her in 1997 "to pay respects to [its late First Lady] Evita Peron and for tango lessons."
She said his aviation fleet had transported "all kinds of things," including electronics goods, when Bout was still active in the air transport business.
The couple lived in South Africa for several years but moved back to Russia in 2001 when Bout's business went bankrupt because of growing competition, after which he started dealing with agricultural products and selling construction materials, she added.
"If he's extradited to the United States, it is likely that the trial will be no more than a theater," she said. "He will not receive a fair trial because his image has been tainted by the U.S. and other media."
Bout has been the subject of a full-length book in the U.S. and is generally believed to be a model for the arms dealer portrayed by Nicolas Cage in the 2005 movie "Lord of War"
Bout's hearing had been scheduled to resume Wednesday, but was changed to April 29 because the next witness — a Thai policeman who took part in his arrest at a luxury Bangkok hotel — was unable to attend.