NEW YORK (Reuters) - A New York jury was selected on Tuesday to hear the trial of suspected Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, accused of offering to sell guns and missiles to undercover U.S. agents posing as weapons buyers for Colombian rebels.
Bout, a former Soviet air force officer who was the subject of a book titled "Merchant of Death," faces 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 in a trial in federal court in Manhattan due to open on Wednesday and last no more than four weeks.
U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin winnowed the jury pool by asking prospective jurors, among other questions, if they could be fair and impartial in a case involving the FARC, the Colombian militant group. Twelve jurors and three alternates were ultimately chosen from a pool of at least 150 prospects.
Bout was arrested in Bangkok in 2008 in a sting operation by U.S. agents posing as arms buyers from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC. He was extradited to the United States in November to face trial.
Washington classifies FARC, nominally a Marxist-inspired guerrilla army, as a terrorist organization and says it is deeply involved in the cocaine trade.
According to court documents, Bout offered to sell the agents advanced man-portable surface-to-air missiles, as well as approximately 5,000 AK-47 assault rifles.
While he was 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.
Defense attorney Albert Dayan and assistant U.S. attorney Brendan McGuire said they would deliver opening statements on Wednesday.
Prosecutors did not say who they would call as their first witness, but jurors at some point will hear from Andrew Smulian, who has pleaded guilty to related weapons charges and has agreed to testify against Bout.
As Tuesday's court proceeding was about to end, one of the selected jurors suddenly asked the judge to quit the jury. After she had been excused, the judge said the woman had said her fear of elevators would prevent her from serving.
The final pool is composed of nine women and six men.
(Reporting by Basil Katz; Editing by Eileen Daspin and Cynthia Johnston)