A federal judge ordered a Russian arms dealer known as the Merchant of Death to be moved from solitary confinement to a prison's general population Friday, an unusual move in a courthouse where judges usually leave those decisions to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.
Judge Shira Scheindlin ordered the change for Viktor Bout, saying she "cannot simply defer to the warden and abandon my duty to uphold the Constitution" after finding there is no rational basis to conclude that Bout poses a greater danger in the prison's general population than other inmates.
She rejected arguments by the government that Bout was a danger within the prison because he was convicted in November of charges that he sold weapons to a U.S. government operative posing as a go-between for South American terrorists who wanted to shoot down U.S. helicopter pilots.
"This case differs significantly from a standard terrorism case," the judge wrote. She said Bout was approached by government agents posing as members of a terrorist organization and there was no evidence at trial that Bout had any connection to terrorists.
She also dismissed claims by the government that Bout could acquire vast resources to escape or harm people, saying the claims were "simply not supported by any evidence." Scheindlin also noted there was no evidence that Bout engaged in violent acts or was more than a businessman engaged in arms trafficking.
Bout has been in solitary confinement at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan since he was brought to the United States 15 months ago from Thailand, where he had been held since his March 2008 arrest.
His lawyer, Albert Dayan, challenged his conditions of detention, complaining that Bout eats, sleeps and washes in a one-man cell and is permitted only one hour of exercise a day in a room slightly larger than his cell. He also gets only one telephone call per month, has no interaction with other prisoners and must be in full restraints when he is transported.
Scheindlin said she believed the solitary confinement was an "exaggerated response" to the Bureau of Prisons' concerns about him.
At his March 12 sentencing, Bout faces a mandatory minimum of 25 years in prison and a maximum of life.
Carly Sullivan, a spokeswoman for federal prosecutors, declined to comment.
Dayan said the ruling "is the recognition that our federal prison system is bound by humane considerations."