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 Drug Enforcement Administration 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 $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 in a hotel conference room after meeting with two DEA informants who posed as officials of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, also known as FARC. The group has been classified by Washington as a narco-terrorist group.
Bout, a vegetarian and classical music fan who speaks six languages, 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. He was an inspiration for an arms dealer character played by Nicolas Cage in the 2005 film "Lord of War."
As Bout's wife entered court Wednesday, he winked and offered her a closed-mouth smile through his thick moustache.
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 who introduced him to the two DEA sources and agreed to cooperate after he was arrested along with him. Also slated to testify are the two paid informants, both with criminal pasts, who posed as FARC officials.
McGuire said virtually all of their conversations with Bout were recorded. One informant, he said, already had been paid millions of dollars for work he did for the Department of State.
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.
"We're together, and we have the same enemy," McGuire quoted Bout as telling the informants on the day of his arrest in a Bangkok.
He added that jurors would hear Bout say: "It is not business. It is my fight. I'm fighting the United States for 10 to 15 years."
"During the meetings," McGuire said, "Bout never hesitated and never showed any surprise."
The prosecutor said the arrest occurred about six weeks after the sting operation began and only after Bout was coaxed to leave his Russian home, where he had spent considerable time after the United Nations in March 2004 passed a resolution prohibiting him from traveling through much of the world.
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 $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.
Dayan said the government's anti-American depiction of Bout might leave jurors with a sense of anger and rage.
"But anger and rage should not be a substitute for proof," he said. "You will see he is wrongfully accused in our country, thousands of miles away from his home."
He said he would prove during a trial expected to last several weeks that Bout "never wanted, never intended and was never going to sell arms to anyone in this case."
Dayan said Bout, born in the Soviet Union in 1967, was drafted into the military at age 18. He said his client opened an air freight business in 1991 and owned more than 30 cargo planes by age 30.
The lawyer said Bout "never himself negotiated terms to any arms contracts." He said the U.N. made him into a scapegoat and he "couldn't shake off a reputation as an arms transporter, which had grown to a legend that was way beyond what was the case."
When the U.S. set up its sting operation, Bout found himself in a "two-way, real-life con game" in which the U.S. was trying to charge him with arms deal crimes and he was trying to sell cargo planes without ever following through on a weapons delivery, Dayan said.
"Viktor was baiting them along with the promise of arms, hoping just to sell his planes," Dayan said. "They played a perfect sucker to catch a sucker."
He said the DEA informants had "utterly failed to convince him that they were FARC" and he was glad it was captured on taped conversations so that jurors could hear his client's disbelieving voice.
He said all the talk on tapes about killing Americans was meant to "prejudice him in your eyes" and he urged jurors to hear Bout in a tone that might sound more like: "Yeah, yeah, yeah. They're my enemy, too. Just give me the money for my planes."
Dayan urged the jury to resist the government request to "convict this man and bury him for life," a comment that caused McGuire to rise from his chair with a loud objection.
U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin said she understood Dayan's comment to be hyperbole.
Just before openings began, the trial judge 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.
As the judge had instructed, there was no mention in the openings about the Merchant of Death moniker attached to Bout by a high-ranking minister at Britain's Foreign Office, who had drawn attention to Bout's 1990s notoriety for running a fleet of aging Soviet-era cargo planes to conflict-ridden hotspots in Africa.
The nickname was included in the government's indictment of Bout, and U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara referenced it when he announced Bout's extradition last year, saying: "The so-called Merchant of Death is now a federal inmate."
Follow Larry Neumeister at http://twitter.com/Lneumeister