Profile: Viktor Bout

International arms dealer sentenced to 25 years in jail for attempting to sell weapons to Colombia’s FARC rebels.

Viktor Bout
Bout insists that he has been wrongfully accused of illegally supplying arms across three continents [GALLO/GETTY]

Viktor Bout, one of the world’s most notorious arms dealers, has been sentenced to 25 years in New York.

Accused of running a lucrative arms-dealing business across three different continents, the Russian once dubbed the “Merchant of Death” was convicted in New York last year on charges of attempting to sell heavy weaponry to Colombia’s FARC rebels.

Bout has denied all allegations of wrongdoing, saying that he is an innocent entrepeneur who operates a legitimate transport business, and that he was wrongly targetted by the US government.

Born in then-Soviet ruled Dushanbe, Tajikstan, in 1967, Bout is said to have began his career in air transport in the early 1990s, having earlier been a translator for the Soviet air force.

His initial fleet consisted primarily of Russian-built Antonov and Ilyushin aircraft, which he used to fly goods – everything from arms and ammunition to chickens and flowers – to South America, the Middle East and Africa.

Bout says he provides only legal logistical services to his clients, but Peter Hain, a former minister in Britain’s foreign ministry, famously called him the world’s “leading merchant of death” in 2003.

The UN has named him as an associate of Charles Taylor, the Liberian ex-president who is currently awaiting a verdict on a war crimes charge.

The organisation alleges that he provided weapons and logistical services to the Liberian leader.

‘Spider’s web’

Media in the Middle East have reported that Bout was allegedly running arms and weapons into Afghanistan to aid the Taliban in the 1990s and 2000s.

He is further accused of illegally flying arms into Angola during that country’s civil war, into the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well to Sudan and Libya.

In an interview in 2009, Bout denied the charge that he had supplied the Taliban, saying that while he had flown arms into the country in the mid-1990s, he had been supplying the Northern Alliance of rebels who were opposed to Taliban rule.

He also says that he helped transport goods into Rwanda after the genocide in that country, aiding the French government and the UN in their operations there.

Documents have shown that Bout’s company was one of those contracted by the US government to fly supplies into Iraq after the 2003 invasion.

In 2003, Hain said: “Bout is the leading merchant of death who is the principal conduit for planes and supply routes that take arms … from East Europe, principally Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine to Liberia and Angola.

“The UN has exposed Bout as the centre of a spider’s web of shady arms dealers, diamond brokers and other operatives, sustaining the wars.”

On the run

Bout, who was the inspiration for the 2005 film Lord of War, – was believed to have been travelling under several aliases, with the United Arab Emirates, Belgium and South Africa mentioned as three of several countries of residence during his time on the run from authorities. He re-emerged in 2003, in his native Russia.

Washington had been attempting to prosecute Bout since the early 2000s – even as it had contracted his company to provide logistical support for the 2003 Iraq invasion – including moving to freeze his assets in 2006.

US authorities were held back, however, by the lack of any law that they could charge him under.

In 2008, agents from the US Drug Enforcement Agency, posing as buyers for Colombia’s FARC rebels, were able to gain an introduction to Bout and his company.

Shortly after they had discussed possible arms shipments with him, he was arrested by authorities in Thailand.

Bout insists the case against him is politically motivated, and the Russian government has consistently defended him as being unjustly persecuted.

After his arrest in Thailand, under an Interpol red notice, Bout was eventually extradited to the US in November 2010, after a lengthy legal process.

He was charged with conspiracy to provide material support or resources to a designated foreign terrorist organisation and conspiring to kill US citizens, among other accusations.

A jury convicted him of conspiracy to kill US citizens and officials, deliver anti-aircraft missiles and aid a terrorist organisation on November 2, 2011.

Source: News Agencies