For nearly two decades, Viktor Bout ruled an empire of the air. He dispatched a private fleet of long-haul cargo planes that spanned the globe, shipping heavy machinery, frozen chickens and more. The Russian businessman is grounded now, facing trial this week in a New York federal courtroom for what Western governments insist was his real specialty _ arranging delivery of tons of weapons that inflamed violence across the world's war zones.
A former Soviet military officer with command of four languages, Bout is known as the "Merchant of Death," the nickname long used by American and international officials to describe his suspected prominence in the illicit arms trade. He has been banned from international travel for violating United Nations arms embargos, targeted by a U.S. asset freeze and he inspired the role of the fictitious arms trafficker played by Nicolas Cage in the 2005 action film, "Lord of War."
He is believed to have amassed a fortune estimated as high as $6 billion. His clients, according to official investigations, included African dictators Moammar Gadhafi, Charles Taylor and the Taliban mullahs who once ran Afghanistan. Planes linked to his network even flew supplies to Iraq for the U.S. armed forces.
Bout, 44, eluded arrest until U.S. narcotics agents lured him to Thailand in a 2008 sting operation, charging him with conspiring to sell anti-aircraft missiles and other weapons to undercover informants posing as South American terrorists. Protesting his innocence, Bout was extradited to New York in November after enduring a grueling, two-year limbo in a Bangkok prison while the U.S. and Russia squared off in a diplomatic tug-of-war.
His arrest was a high point in efforts to stem the flow of black market arms, but the case has set off Cold War echoes. For Russia, Bout's prosecution is seen as American overreach, stoking fears he will be pressed to open up about his ties to Russia's military and intelligence circles.
U.S. prosecutors will face defense questions about the sting's validity and his treatment by federal agents. His attorneys had also claimed Bout was targeted because the U.S. was embarrassed by its use of his air companies in Iraq _ but they agreed last week to avoid that argument unless prosecutors allude to it during questioning. Jury selection starts Tuesday.
"There are powerful people in Russia who are quite frankly worried that he might spill his guts," said Michael Braun, a former Drug Enforcement Administration chief of operations who led the Bout investigation.
Sergei Markov, a Russian lawmaker and member of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's ruling United Russia party, agreed: "They want to extract information from him."
Bout's attorney, Albert Y. Dayan, said his client "never had any intention of transferring arms to anyone" in the sting. He added last week that "we believe that most of the reputation he has developed is imposed rather than actual."
Trying to mute the prejudicial effects of Bout's notoriety, U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin said last week she will try a tactic new to federal trials, requiring jurors to sign a pledge not to research Bout on the Internet or other media.
It will not be easy. The Web is flooded with photographs of a haggard Bout in his Thai jail cell, as well as news stories, websites and Facebook pages. There have been documentaries, books and a suspense novel based on the Russian businessman. Bout dismissed the "Lord of War" film as "a bad movie." A rock group, DePotorland, recently released a new video for a song about Bout, "We Deliver."
Bout's transport network got its start in the early 1990s, soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Leasing and then buying old Russian-made cargo planes known for their durability and lumbering size, Bout amassed an air armada that grew to more than 60 aircraft by the late 1990s, according to U.S. officials. The planes were constantly on the move, flying from Africa to Afghanistan and hopscotching to bases in Belgium, South Africa, Swaziland, the United Arab Emirates and across Eastern Europe.
The planes brimmed with loads ranging from diamonds to gladiolas. But by the late 1990s, U.S. and UN officials and anti-arms-trade activists had pinpointed the flights as a key source of assault rifles and more sophisticated weapons systems turning up in the violence-plagued African nations of Liberia, Angola, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. U.S. officials later said Bout's air operations also earned $50 million aiding the Taliban in Afghanistan.
"It was his air fleet, his easy access to arms and his ability to reach the most violent parts of the world that made Viktor Bout so much more than the run of the mill arms dealer," said Juan Zarate, a top counterterrorism official for the Bush administration and now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Describing Bout as a transnational threat capable of aiding terrorists and other violent groups, the U.S. targeted him with financial sanctions for alleged arms work in Liberia and the Congo. Belgium indicted him on money laundering charges in 2002 and Interpol issued an international warrant, but Bout retreated to Moscow, where Russian officials spurned the inquiries.
When Bout was arrested in Bangkok in March 2008 by the DEA and Thai police, Russian diplomats were quick to defend him. The case has become a Russian cause celebre in the months since his extradition. Bout's wife, Alla, and his mother and daughter have come to pre-trial hearings and are expected to attend the trial in New York.
If Bout were convicted, Markov said, "Russia will protest. Bout is a Russian citizen, and it's the Russian authorities' duty to protect his rights." Sergei Prikhodko, the senior foreign policy aide to President Dmitry Medvedev, said in November that there are no secrets, military or otherwise, that Bout could pass to the Americans. Still, some Russian parliament members have raised the possibility of a swap similar to last year's trade of Russian sleeper agents arrested in the U.S. for prisoners held in Russia.
U.S. authorities have not speculated publicly on any deal, but such a move would be opposed by the DEA and prosecutors. "I don't see that in the cards," said Braun, the former DEA official who now is managing partner of the Virginia-based Spectre Group International security firm.
Bout faces a possible life sentence if convicted. He is charged with conspiring to sell millions of dollars in weapons to DEA informants acting as officials of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucianarios de Colombia, or FARC, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization operating in Colombia. He is also accused of conspiring to kill Americans. Prosecutors said he offered to sell 700 to 800 surface-to-air missiles, 5,000 AK-47 firearms, millions of rounds of ammunition, land mines, night-vision equipment and ultra-light airplanes that could carry missiles to the undercover informants.
Bout has won some legal challenges. The judge ruled that the government could not use statements that Bout made to federal agents after his 2008 arrest. Scheindlin also suggested DEA agents had testified falsely in claiming they had not pressed Bout to cooperate with them, but she later withdrew that accusation after prosecutors protested.
Even without the ability to use Bout's statements, prosecutors have Bout's wiretapped conversations and documents and emails lifted from his seized laptop. The undercover informants are expected to testify along with Andrew Smulian, a veteran pilot arrested with Bout who had worked with the Russian dating back to 1996.
Bout has not talked publicly in the courtroom, but defense lawyer Kenneth Kaplan said Bout has been helping his attorneys prepare for trial while he studies a new language, Hindi.
"He's been anxiously awaiting his day in court," Kaplan said.
Associated Press writer Vladimir Isachenkov also contributed to this report from Moscow. Braun and a co-author wrote the 2007 book, "Merchant of Death," about Bout.