MANHATTAN (CN) – Viktor Bout’s former associate discussed arms sales, the trauma of his arrest and the secret meanings of mustache trimming among political radicals during his third day of testimony Thursday.
Andrew Smulian, a 70-year-old, white-haired South African, had trouble recounting his interviews with government agents after he and Bout were arrested in a sting operation at a conference room at the Sofitel hotel in Bangkok, Thailand.
“I was in a rather traumatic state when that conversation took place,” Smulian said. “It was scarcely 10 to 15 minutes after being arrested.”
Bout is accused of trying to sell millions of dollars in weapons to confidential informants posing as guerrillas from the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), which the United States calls a terrorist group.
The sting was part of the “Operation Relentless,” a federal quest to arrest Bout, a Russian national whose exploits allegedly inspired the Hollywood movie “Lord of War” and the nonfiction book “Merchant of Death.”Like Bout, Smulian sports a bushy mustache, which became surprisingly relevant to his interactions with the purported FARC militants.
In an email of Dec. 16, 2007, Smulian asked a confidential informant: “For trimming purposes … are your clients to the left or the right?”
Smulian explained that men who trim their mustaches up tend to be “left-leaning or socialist,” whereas those who brush them down generally are conservative.
Although both men trimmed down, Smulian pleaded guilty to conspiring to arm self-described Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries; Bout is fighting identical charges.
For Bout, political convictions could be adjusted as easily as facial hair, according to his attorney Albert Dayan.
Holding transcripts of his post-arrest interviews, Dayan said that Smulian told a Drug Enforcement Administration agent that Bout originally did not want to go along with the arms deal when he heard that the purported clients were FARC militants.
“If the agent wrote it down, it must be so,” Smulian said.
Smulian did not deny that he initially told the DEA agent that Bout engaged in no other arms deals, except with the FARC.
“Again, it’s what the agent had written,” he said.
Waving another defense exhibit, Dayan pressed Smulian about saying that Bout abandoned arms sales because of a “glut in the market.”
Smulian denied making the remarks until he was shown the documents.
Throughout the trial, prosecutors had witnesses explain code names such as “oro blanco,” or “white gold” for cocaine, and the “big vodka store” for Russia.
Dayan emphasized the innocuous aspects of Bout’s business, which did not require such secrecy.
One email, for example, discussed Bout seeking to ship a “load of cashew nuts.”
Smulian agreed that cashew nuts were not a “disguised term” for contraband.
“These were really cashew nuts,” Dayan said.
During combative cross-examination, Dayan questioned Smulian’s testimony that Bout did not do business with drug dealers.
According to Dayan, Bout did not care where the money came from.
Dayan has argued that Bout left the arms business after United Nations sanctions restricted his movements and seized his assets. He claims that Bout may have humored the informants’ request for arms sales, but was prepared only to sell them two cargo planes for $5 million.
In one transcript, Smulian told the informants that they “have to” buy the two cargo planes for the deal to move forward.
Smulian said he meant that the airplane purchase was “not obligatory.”
“I didn’t say ‘got’ to,” Smulian said.
“You said ‘have’ to,” Dayan countered.
Dayan pressed him about the distinction several more times to no avail, until U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin interrupted.
“I think the problem is you said it eight times,” Scheindlin said.
Later, Dayan pointed to a different transcript that has Smulian telling the informants they “must” buy the airplanes.
“I’m not saying ‘must’ as obligatory,” Smulian insisted.
Dayan asked Smulian about a supposed $1 million commission he stood to gain on the plane purchase.
Smulian said he volunteered his work on the planes, and he talked about getting a commission only on arms sales.
During one meeting, the lead informant said he brought $5 million in euros with him, the exact fee Bout requested for the airplanes in a different currency.
Smulian chalked this up to coincidence.
“It’s not even a coincidence,” he added, pointing out that euros were worth far more than dollars.
Smulian finished testifying on Thursday.
Witness testimony in the jury trial resumes today (Friday).