'Merchant of Death' Arms Dealer Trial Begins in New York

He is the only accused arms dealer with a website.

Viktor Bout, the so-called “Merchant of Death,” walked into the wood-paneled federal courtroom in lower Manhattan Tuesday to face charges he was willing to provide a massive arsenal of weapons to “kill Americans,” as part of his alleged global network of illegal arms trafficking.

Bout has a reputation for being the world’s most notorious arms dealer. Prosecutors say for decades he has provided weapons for bloody conflicts from Libya to the Congo, and that he even made $50 million supplying weapons to the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Bout denies any wrongdoing, portraying himself as a legitimate businessman who ran a cargo airline and did not participate in arms dealing. But experts say his trial will peel away the shadowy world of illicit arms trading that has fueled global conflicts in some of the most desperate and war-torn countries, from the Middle East to Africa.

“Viktor Bout is one of the most maniacal individuals who has no concern for the many places in the world where he has trafficked weapons,” says Kathi Lynn Austin, director of the Conflict Awareness Project, who has followed Bout for 15 years.

“We are talking about countries devastated by war, countries where American troops have been at risk, countries where terrorists are operating,” Austin says. “We are talking about massive loss of human life. We are talking in the millions. These are the kind if wars that Mr. Bout has not only supplied, but has actually facilitated and initiated war.”

Reports put his personal worth at $6 billion.

Bout was nabbed in 2008 during a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency sting in Thailand. Authorities say he offered to sell the agents, posing as FARC Colombia terrorists, “more than 700 surface-to-air missiles, 5,000 AK-47 assault rifles, anti-personnel landmines, C-4 explosives and literally millions of rounds of ammunition.” He was extradited to the U.S., where he has been awaiting trial.

But Bout’s defenders have attacked the legal proceedings, claiming there is “no case, no trial.”

Bout’s older brother, Sergei, told reporters in Moscow that his brother was arrested improperly. “American authorities…stole him,” he said.

The website, Victorbout.com, has reams of material proclaiming the defendant’s innocence, claiming “the case is nothing but politics,” and that “the U.S. government lied in everything it alleges against Victor.”

"Victor Bout is a dynamic, charismatic, spontaneous, well-dressed, well-spoken and highly energetic person,” the website proclaims. “Victor may have violated some laws somewhere, just like we all have done sometime; however he was not that arms trafficking man presented to the public by the propaganda jockeys through the media.”

Bout’s lawyer, Albert Dayan, did not return our calls for comment and reporters were at first barred from the courtroom during the start of jury selection. As the proceedings got underway, Bout sat at the defense table listening quietly, dressed in a dark pin-striped business suit.

Austin said this morning that she is “overjoyed” that Mr. Bout is finally being brought to trial. But she had no doubt about what will happen if Bout is eventually cleared.

“If he is not convicted of these crimes, then the world will be a far more dangerous place. Terrorists will have access to weapons. Victor Bout is likely to go back to Russia, to a place where he will be protected.”