Viktor Bout, the man that inspired the 2005 film “Lord of War,” was convicted of Arms-Trafficking in a Federal District Court in Manhattan on November 2nd. Dubbed the “Merchant of Death” and regarded by the United States and the United Nations as among the world’s most notorious arms traffickers, Bout stands to spend the rest of his life in jail after a federal jury found him guilty of conspiring to kill United States citizens, officers and employees, conspiring to acquire and export surface-to-air anti-aircraft missiles, and conspiring to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. His conviction comes on the heels of an extradition battle with Russian and Thai authorities which lasted for over two years after his 2008 arrest in a Bangkok hotel.
Despite his repeated violation of international arms embargoes and treaties, Bout was ultimately apprehended for violating United States law while orchestrating a deal with undercover D.E.A. informants. The informants, posing as members of the Colombian terrorist organization FARC, agreed to purchase 5,000 AK-47 assault rifles, more than 700 anti-aircraft missiles, anti-personnel landmines, C-4 explosives, and millions of rounds of ammunition from Bout and his business associate, Andrew Smulian.
In the face of overwhelming evidence provided by federal prosecutors and corroborating testimony from Smulian, Bout’s attorney, Albert Dyan, characterized him as nothing more than “an innocent and financially troubled businessman” who was “baited into selling arms alongside a deal to sell two cargo planes.” “I still stand by my position that Viktor was wrongfully accused,” Dyan said after the verdict was handed down.
Even the Russian government has questioned the legitimacy of the arrest and extradition. Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, called it a “glaring injustice” shortly after Bout’s extradition to the United States in 2009.
However, Bout’s alleged history as a trafficker tells an entirely different story. A former Soviet Air Force officer, Bout began his trafficking career in the early 1990’s when he was tied to the violation of arms embargoes in Angola, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Since then he has been linked to deals in other parts of Africa, South America, Lebanon, and Afghanistan. He has been named in investigations sponsored by the United Nations, Interpol, the United States, Belgium, and the Central African Republic.
With Wednesday’s verdict, the United States has put one of the world’s most notorious gun runners out of business. However, the question remains, what can be done to prevent protégés of Bout from picking up where he left off? Bout operated for over two decades without an arrest or conviction; what can the international community do to prevent such brazen violations of international law? On a national level, what will Bout’s conviction do to Russian/American relations? Will this become an issue during the upcoming Russian presidential elections?
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