NEW YORK – The lawyer for a former Soviet military officer charged with trying to sell weapons to a terrorist group told a judge Wednesday that his client will maintain at trial that he was in the air transportation business but never sold arms or brokered arms deals.
Attorney Albert Dayan said at a pretrial hearing in Manhattan that no one had ever produced evidence that Viktor Bout was a weapons dealer, including the United Nations.
"He never brokered a deal. He never sold arms," the lawyer told U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin at a pretrial hearing where the government tried to win permission to show a jury emails and instant message chats found on Bout's laptop computer that prosecutors believe help prove Bout's participation in the arms business. Bout's trial is scheduled to begin in October.
Bout, 44, arrested in March 2008 in a Bangkok hotel, was extradited from Thailand last year to face conspiracy charges. The charges resulted from a Drug Enforcement Administration sting operation in which informants posed as officials of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, also known as FARC, a narcotics-selling revolutionary group designated by the U.S. as a foreign terrorist organization.
The judge did not immediately rule on all aspects of the government's request, but she did say she wants to prevent the jury from hearing references to Rwanda and Libya because of the negative connotations that could follow mentions of those countries.
"I would like the word Rwanda not to be there," Scheindlin said. "Rwanda carries a lot of baggage."
Later, when discussion of Libya arose, she added: "Libya, that shouldn't be in the case either."
In their written briefs, lawyers for Bout had complained that the government was seeking to include the additional evidence "for the purpose of denigrating Bout's character by depicting him as a notorious international arms dealer who was operating in violation of the United Nations' and United States sanctions."
In Libya, the U.S. has flown more than 1,100 strike operations, dropping bombs more than 230 times since April 1 as Libyan rebels try to break a military stalemate with forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi.
President Barack Obama earlier this month cited the genocide in Rwanda 17 years ago and the Holocaust 66 years ago as he called on tightening immigration rules to ensure that human rights violators don't enter the United States and implementing a plan to improve U.S. ability to prevent mass atrocities abroad.
Bout has been accused of supplying weapons that fueled civil wars in South America, the Middle East and Africa, with clients including Liberia's Charles Taylor, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and the Taliban government that once ran Afghanistan. He was an inspiration for an arms dealer character played by Nicolas Cage in the 2005 film "Lord of War."
If convicted, Bout could face a mandatory minimum of 25 years in prison. He has pleaded not guilty.