International arms dealer Viktor Bout, the so-called “Merchant of Death,” was sentenced Thursday in federal court in New York to 25 years in prison following his conviction in a multimillion-dollar conspiracy to finance a fleet of aircraft to arm bloody conflicts and support terrorists worldwide.
U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin in Manhattan also ordered the former KGB agent to forfeit $15 million.
Bout, 45, declared his innocence until the last, telling the judge he was “not guilty” and charging that the charges against him were false. He shouted “It’s a lie” and “God knows the truth” when a prosecutor said Bout had agreed to sell weapons to kill Americans.
A federal jury found him guilty in November after deliberating a full day, convicting Bout on charges of conspiracy to kill Americans and U.S. officials, deliver anti-aircraft missiles, and aid a terrorist organization.
Defense lawyers claimed their client was a political prisoner and requested that a jury verdict of guilty in the case be reversed and the charges dismissed. They called the case “the product of outrageous, inexcusable government conduct.” Prosecutors asked that Bout be imprisoned for life.
“The crimes Viktor Bout committed represent the worst-case scenario for modern law enforcement — the merger of criminal international narcotics cartels with their terrorism enablers,” said Michelle M. Leonhart, head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the lead agency in the Bout probe. “The ‘Merchant of Death’ has finally been held to account in a court of law for his years of profiteering from death and misery around the world.”
Bout was arrested in Thailand on March 6, 2008, on an Interpol “red notice,” a warrant issued for those sought for prosecution by national jurisdictions. Red notices are circulated worldwide with a view to extradition.
His arrest culminated a DEA sting operation involving two undercover informants who posed as members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a designated terrorist organization. FARC’s violent acts have included killings, kidnappings and bombings in Colombia of places frequented by Americans.
Handcuffed and wearing protective armor and a helmet, Bout was escorted after his arrest to a chartered American aircraft at the Don Muang International Airport in Bangkok by 50 Thai police officers, including snipers, before he was handed over to six DEA agents for the trip to the U.S.
His court-ordered extradition angered Russian officials, who condemned the Thai government.
Bout claimed in court documents that his March 2008 arrest by Royal Thai Police in Bangkok was illegal because a DEA agent had assisted in the apprehension. The Thai court rejected the claim.
The arms dealer and an associate, Syrian-born Richard A. Chichakli, were accused of money laundering, wire fraud and conspiracy, along with charges of conspiring to purchase two aircraft from U.S. companies in violation of economic sanctions.
Described by U.S. intelligence officials as the most powerful player in illegal arms trafficking worldwide, Bout was taken into custody by Thai police in his Bangkok hotel room — nabbed after talking with the undercover informants.
Authorities said Bout was seeking to sell millions of dollars worth of weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, and was apprehended in the final stages of making arrangements for the sale and shipment of the arms.
According to a criminal complaint in the case, another Bout associate, Andrew Smulian, told the informants during a series of recorded meetings in Romania that Bout had 100 surface-to-air missiles available and could provide helicopters and armor-piercing rocket launchers. The complaint said Mr. Smulian spoke with Bout over a cellular phone provided to him by the informants.
Bout shipped weapons and explosives to terrorist and rebel organizations worldwide, including the Taliban, and is thought to have supplied arms to Iraqi insurgents in their fight against the U.S. military through front companies and cargo airlifts.
In May 2006, when 200,000 AK-47 assault rifles turned up missing in transit from Bosnia to Iraq, one of Bout’s airlines was the carrier. The Treasury Department seized his cargo planes and froze other assets in 2006.
“Although Bout has often described himself as nothing more than a businessman, he was a businessman of the most dangerous order,” prosecutors said in their pre-sentencing memo. “Transnational criminals like Bout who are ready, willing and able to arm terrorists transform their customers from intolerant ideologues into lethal criminals who pose the gravest risk to civilized societies.”