Judge cites "thin" evidence in Bout arms case

Reuters News
Posted: Jun 16, 2011 7:28 PM
Judge cites "thin" evidence in Bout arms case

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A U.S. judge on Thursday said portions of the case by U.S. prosecutors against Russian Viktor Bout "seem thin" as the suspected arms dealer prepares to stand trial in a New York federal court in September.

"I don't see there is much evidence," U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin said, responding to defense arguments that U.S. authorities failed to show Bout's accused actions involved the United States. "It does seem thin to me."

Bout was extradited from Thailand in November last year after his arrest in Bangkok in March 2008 in a U.S.-led sting operation.

He pleaded not guilty last November to charges that include conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals and conspiracy to provide help to a terrorist group. He faces 25 years to life in prison if convicted on the charges.

In the operation, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents posed as arms buyers from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The United States classifies the Colombian group as a terrorist organization and says it is deeply involved in the cocaine trade.

U.S. prosecutors told the judge on Thursday that they had ample evidence to show Bout knew the Colombian group intended to harm Americans.

The judge had gathered both sides to hear arguments over defense requests to dismiss charges against Bout. The judge did not immediately rule on the motions.

According to court documents, Bout offered to sell the agents, posing as Colombian rebels, advanced man-portable surface to air missiles, as well as approximately 5,000 AK-47 assault rifles.

While he is charged only in connection with the suspected arms deal in Thailand, U.S. authorities have said he has been involved in trafficking arms since the 1990s to dictators and conflict zones in Africa, South America and the Middle East.

(Reporting by Basil Katz; Editing by Xavier Briand)