By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer caught in an undercover sting by U.S. agents posing as Colombian guerrillas seeking weapons, was sentenced to 25 years in prison on Thursday by a U.S. judge in New York.
Bout, who was the subject of a book titled "Merchant of Death," asserted his innocence during the sentencing, telling the judge through a Russian interpreter, "I never intended to kill anyone. I never intended to sell arms to anyone. God knows this truth."
He then pointed at federal agents sitting in the front row. "These people know this truth," Bout said. "They will live with this truth….God forgive you. You will answer to him, not to me."
Arrested in Bangkok in 2008 after a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) sting operation and later extradited to New York to face trial, Bout was convicted by a Manhattan federal court jury last fall. The three-week trial centered on charges he agreed to sell arms to people he thought were Colombian militants intent on attacking American soldiers.
Bout's capture came less than a year after the publication of "Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible," written by investigative journalists Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun. The 2007 book chronicled Bout's life as an arms dealer and how he evaded capture for years.
He was convicted of two counts of conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals and officers of the United States and one count each of conspiracy to sell anti-aircraft missiles and providing material support to a terrorist organization.
His attorneys have said they would appeal the trial conviction, pursuing their tooth and nail fight with the government in a case they characterize as a persecution by the United States of an innocent man.
Defense attorney Albert Dayan argued on Thursday that the government's case had "built-in reasonable doubt" because it was based entirely on Bout's promises, rather than his actions.
He argued that the crimes for which Bout was convicted were intended to target "terrorists, people bent on destroying Americans, people who aren't deterred by life sentences. This is not Viktor Bout."
U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin noted that federal sentencing guidelines called for a life sentence, due in part to Bout's conviction on a crime of terrorism. But, she said, the fact that Bout's conduct was a result of a government sting operation was a mitigating factor despite his long history of arms dealing.
"But for the approach made in this determined sting operation, it is unclear that Mr. Bout would have committed the charged crimes," she said.
U.S. informants posed as arms buyers from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, and met with Bout in Thailand to buy an arsenal of military weaponry, which prosecutors said he agreed to provide.
Two DEA informants who posed as FARC leaders testified for the prosecution at Bout's trial. A former Bout business associate, Andrew Smulian, also testified for the government after pleading guilty to participating in the FARC deal.
According to prosecutors, in a meeting at a Bangkok hotel with the supposed FARC representatives, Bout agreed to sell the 100 advanced man-portable surface-to-air missiles or the approximately 5,000 AK-47 assault rifles that were discussed.
Bout was charged only in connection with the suspected arms deal, but 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.
Prosecutors said the informants told Bout the weapons would be used to attack U.S. pilots assisting the Colombian government. At the meeting in Bangkok, Bout responded, "We have the same enemy."
Washington classifies the FARC, a Marxist-inspired guerrilla army, as a terrorist organization and says it is deeply involved in the cocaine trade.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; writing by Paul Thomasch; editing by Dan Burns and Cynthia Osterman)