Clashing Stories in Bout Trial Summations
MANHATTAN (CN) - In summations Monday, a prosecutor used the word "terrorist" more than a dozen times to describe the Columbian guerrillas - actually DEA informants - whom Viktor Bout allegedly tried to arm, while Bout's attorney called his notorious client a "tragic" figure.
A Russian national, Bout was the subject of the nonfiction book "Merchant of Death," and allegedly inspired the Hollywood movie "The Lord of War." For years, he was suspected of arming dictators, despots and warring factions in the Congo, Angola, Sierra Leone and other conflict zones around the world.
Though sanctioned by the United Nations, Bout remained a free man for more than a decade until the U.S. government snared him in "Operation Relentless," a sting operation with undercover informants posing as militants from the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC).
Thai authorities arrested Bout on March 6, 2008, allegedly after he and the informants shook hands on a deal to deliver the phony FARC guerrillas millions of dollars in surface-to-air missiles, guns, ammunition, explosives, mines and weapon-ready airplanes.
At least 15 times during his summation, Assistant U.S. Attorney Guruanjan Sahni reminded jurors that the United States classifies the FARC as a terrorist organization, for its violent opposition to the Columbian government and hostage-taking of U.S. citizens.
Before trial, defense attorney Albert Dayan claimed that Bout's arrest was payback for an embarrassing press revelation that Bout had airdropped supplies to U.S. soldiers fighting in Iraq.
Upholding Bout's indictment, U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin rejected that argument as irrelevant, and prohibited both sides from referring to any of Bout's alleged activities not related to his indictment.
The evidence deemed pertinent for the jury trial showed that Bout was an expert in the world of arms trades, prosecutors said.
Sahni pointed out that wiretaps caught Bout exclaiming to an undercover informant in Spanish, "Ah, la guerra," - "Oh, war!"
One informant, Carlos Sagastume, testified that Bout declared, "Let's go to war," as they waited for an elevator to take them to their meeting.
Before being arrested at a Bangkok hotel, Bout offered the informants various weapons, explained how to launder money by buying a bank, invented code words to conduct illicit business and gave instructions on how to disguise contraband with flour and fruit, wiretaps showed.
Bout also offered one of faux-militants condolences for the death of an actual FARC commander, and praised a YouTube video showing the group using gas tanks to hide explosives, prosecutors reminded jurors.
"Uh, I saw on YouTube, uh, gas tank system. Congratulations! Genius. Genius. Genius," Bout gushed, according to wiretap transcripts.
A computer forensic examiner showed that Bout did extensive researched in preparation for the meeting, creating a "Columbia" category of Internet bookmarks and a "FARC" desktop folder, Sahni said.
Throughout trial, defense attorney Dayan said that Bout did not want to kill Americans, and intended to sell only cargo planes to the informants.
But Sahni said Bout's own words undercut that argument.
"It's not business," Bout said on tape. "It's my fight."
Dayan countered that Bout, like the informants, was playing a role, trying to persuade his clients he would be able to deliver the arms they wanted, in order to make $5 million on the planes.
"Viktor was, once upon a time, in the arms distribution business," Dayan said, adding, "It was not illegal. He had withdrawn."
He said the informants that "hooked" Bout were former drug dealers who wanted to collect a multimillion dollar "bounty."
Sagastume, one of those informants, testified that he has collected more than $9 million from his years of undercover work.
Dayan also tried to undermine the testimony of cooperating witness Andrew Smulian, who had not seen his friend Bout for more than a decade. Mike Snow, a government agent who did not testify, allegedly pulled Smulian into the scheme, and asked him to broker the deal through Bout.
At the time, Smulian was "broke" and "intoxicated" with the "retirement plan" that the arms deal would provide him, Dayan claimed.
Smulian pleaded guilty to the charges Bout faces, and testified wearing a federal prison jumpsuit under a blazer.
Since Bout cannot legally be said to "conspire" with government informants, both parties agree that the charges against Bout hang on Smulian's testimony, and Dayan attacked his credibility.
Smulian, a 70-year-old South African, testified that he used to be an informant for the apartheid government.
During cross-examination, Smulian denied that Bout had been reluctant to deal with FARC militants, but he changed his story after Dayan showed him a record of his post-arrest statements, Dayan told the jury.
"You have to bet Viktor's life on Smulian's testimony," Dayan said. "He came in here with a straitjacket."
But Dayan pointed to some emails from Smulian to defend Bout.
In one email, Smulian told Snow that Bout pulled out of selling "grey items," code for weapons, on instructions from the "motherland," Dayan said.
Another email shows Smulian suggesting that Snow get the weapons instead through an alleged French gunrunner, Jean-Bernard Lasnaud.
Smulian allegedly made that suggestion five days after meeting with Bout in Moscow.
Dayan said that Bout's situation illustrates a Chinese proverb: "Dress like a swine to catch a tiger. It's the hunter who gets the last laugh."
Sahni called Dayan's reverse double-cross scenario "nonsense," and said Bout's "lies" grew more complicated after his arrest.
In 2008, Bout told Thai authorities that the informants never clearly told him they were from the FARC, evidence showed.
Jurors should let their "common sense" guide their deliberations, Sahni said.
"Take a step back. Look at the evidence all together," he said. "Keep that good common sense in mind."
Fellow prosecutor Brendan McGuire was to present a rebuttal summation this morning (Tuesday).