NEW YORK (AP) — The U.S. government targeted a notorious Russian arms dealer dubbed the Merchant of Death because he was a "clear and present danger" to Americans and a national security threat, a prosecutor told a federal appeals court Thursday.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Anjan Sahni told a three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the evidence was overwhelming against Viktor Bout, who is serving a 25-year prison term after he was convicted of four conspiracy charges relating to his support of a Colombian terrorist organization.
Bout's defense lawyers have challenged his conviction, saying he was tricked by the government into making anti-U.S. statements that fit well in the political prosecution that followed. The appeals judges seemed reluctant to embrace the arguments by attorney Albert Dayan. The appeals court did not immediately rule.
Dayan said it was wrong to uphold Bout's conviction on the grounds that he should have known that weapons would be used to kill people.
"Isn't it a logical conclusion that they're going to be used to kill people?" asked Judge Denny Chin.
Dayan said the Russian government under that reasoning could accuse any U.S. weapons-maker of crimes if weapons are used to harm anyone in Russia.
Judges Peter W. Hall and José A. Cabranes also sounded supportive of the government's investigation.
"Why shouldn't he be a target of prosecutors?" Cabranes asked.
"Why should the government not target him in the manner that they did?" Hall asked.
Cabranes later asked Sahni if the government targeted Bout.
"Yes, your honor," he answered, citing the "clear and present danger he posed."
Sahni said Bout had a "staggering arsenal of weapons" and was discussing deals to deliver arms to Tanzania and guided missiles to Libya while agents for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration were building their case against him.
Bout was convicted in November 2011 in federal court in Manhattan. He was extradited to the U.S. a year earlier after he was held in Thailand for four years.
For nearly two decades, the former Soviet military officer built a worldwide air cargo operation with more than 60 transport planes, hundreds of companies and a fortune reportedly in excess of $6 billion — exploits that were the main inspiration for the Nicholas Cage film "Lord of War."
Authorities said he also became notorious worldwide for his black market arms — assault rifles, ammunition, anti-aircraft missiles, helicopter gunships and a full range of sophisticated weapons systems, almost always sourced from Russian stocks or Eastern European factories.
The DEA made its move in 2008 when two undercover informants posed as two officials of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Prosecutors said that Bout, who was under economic sanctions and a U.N. travel ban, was told that the men wanted to use drug-trafficking proceeds to pay for surface-to-air missiles and other weapons that would be used to attack helicopter pilots and other Americans in Colombia.
Sahni said Bout was convicted in part through his own words acknowledging that he intended for Americans to die.