A federal judge overseeing the case of a Russian businessman charged with conspiring to sell weapons to a South American terrorist group expressed skepticism Thursday about defense claims that he is the victim of malicious U.S. prosecution.
In motions to dismiss the case, lawyers for Russian air cargo magnate Viktor Bout claimed that American officials vindictively launched a 2008 sting operation against him in Thailand because the government was embarrassed by revelations that the U.S. had used Bout's planes to deliver military supplies for reconstruction efforts in Iraq.
In a hearing Thursday, U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin said she had trouble finding evidence that the government had acted with malice.
"Where's the proof he was selected for a vindictive motive?" the judge asked Bout's lawyers at one point.
After Bout's lead attorney, Albert Dayan, insisted federal officials had pushed the sting operation in order "to annihilate him, take him out of the picture," prosecutor Brendan McGuire dismissed that line of argument as "sensational claims."
Dayan asked Scheindlin to allow a future hearing that might produce testimony on the government's intentions, but the judge held off, saying she would rule on that and the remainder of Bout's dismissal motions later.
Scheindlin rejected several of Bout's dismissal motions earlier this month, ruling that the government's use of a sting operation was not "outrageous government conduct" and that there was adequate evidence showing Bout's intended arms sale may have been aimed at killing Americans.
Bout, 44, was arrested in March 2008 by federal Drug Enforcement Administration agents and Thai police. The sting used undercover informants posing as leaders of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucianarios de Colombia, or FARC, a narcotics-selling revolutionary group designated by the U.S. as a foreign terrorist organization.
Prosecutors later indicted Bout on charges of conspiring to aid a terror group by offering to sell more than 700 surface-to-air missiles, 5,000 Russian-made assault rifles, millions of rounds of ammunition, land mines and other military items to the informants. A federal affidavit alleged that Bout told the informants the munitions could be aimed at American pilots and would be delivered by Russian cargo aircraft and air-dropped by parachute. Bout was extradited from Thailand in November for trial in New York, now set for October.
For more than a decade before his arrest, Bout prospered as an air cargo specialist whose fleet of planes flew worldwide, and he has long insisted his companies transported legal goods.
U.N. Security Council investigative panels accused Bout of violating international weapons embargos in Angola, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo _ moves that led the U.S. to personally target Bout with financial sanctions in 2004 and his financial empire in 2005.