MANHATTAN (CN) – Released from a federal prison to testify against his former friend, Andrew Smulian took the stand against Viktor Bout on Tuesday after defense attorneys vigorously grilled a confidential informant who helped snare both men on terrorism charges.
Smulian, a 70-year-old South African man with gray hair and a bushy mustache, was arrested with Bout when confidential informants posing as Columbian guerrillas allegedly lured them into a scheme to sell millions of dollars in weapons to a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, the Colombian FARC.
The sting was part of the U.S. government’s “Operation Relentless,” a mission to arrest Bout, a Russian national who allegedly armed dictators, despots and warring factions worldwide.
Bout’s exploits are said to be the inspiration for the Hollywood movie “Lord of War,” and were the subject of investigative journalists Douglas Farah and Stephen Brawn’s book, “Merchant of Death.”
Smulian’s friendship with Bout dates back to the 1990s. Prosecutors on Tuesday reviewed emails they exchanged.
In the subject lines, Smulian wrote African hotels and locations that he knew Bout would recognize, to identify his messages as legitimate.
One email, “Polana,” was named after a famous hotel in Mozambique, Smulian said.
Dated Nov. 11, 2006, it started, “Sorry to read of the latest crap.”
Smulian explained that the “crap” referred to recent United Nations sanctions against Bout, restricting his travel and seizing his assets.
In a Jan. 13, 2007 email, Smulian sent birthday greetings to Bout under the subject line “Rovuma,” named after a river that runs through Mozambique.
“[T]ake a glass on me,” Smulian wrote.
Smulian is testifying under a cooperation agreement with the government, which allows a federal judge to reduce his 25-year minimum sentence for charges to which he has pleaded guilty.
Before Smulian took the stand, cooperating witness Carlos Sagastume finished his fourth day of testimony, explaining how he and other DEA agents convinced Bout and Smulian that they were members of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC.
Throughout Sagastume’s testimony, jurors have listened to secret recordings of meetings between Bout, the informants, Smulian and others.
The tapes show Bout ranting against “gringos,” praising a YouTube video of the FARC, and discussing millions of dollars in arms trades in vivid detail.
Defense attorney Albert Dayan has portrayed Bout as an apolitical salesman in the air transportation business, who discussed arms trades only to please his supposed FARC clients.
Playing down the YouTube video, Dayan asked whether Sagastume did Internet research on the FARC, too, using Google.
“No,” Sagastume replied. “I’ve had a lot of contact with drug traffickers who’ve had a lot of contact with the FARC.”
In earlier testimony, Sagastume recounted his days running drugs in the Guatemalan military and being held prisoner by Mexican police, before he started a long career as a DEA informant. He testified that the U.S. State Department paid him $7.5 million for one sting alone.
Dayan downplayed the list of weapons Bout prepared for the undercover agents.
“You prepared a fake list, correct?” Dayan asked.
“Correct,” Sagastume replied, through an interpreter. “He didn’t know that.”
“That’s what you think,” Dayan added, with a twang.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Brendan McGuire objected to the statement.
U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin allowed it, however, by rephrasing it into a question.
“That was your understanding?” the judge asked.
Sagastume said yes, but later agreed with Dayan that he did not know what was in Bout’s mind.
Dayan claimed that U.N. sanctions stopped his client from arms trading altogether.
On the tapes, Bout emphasized twice that he needed to get clearance from the Russian Minister of Defense for the arms deal to clear, Dayan said.
Sagastume agreed that he understood the deal depended on another party’s willingness, but said he understood that Bout would vault those hurdles.
“What I understood is he did need somebody, but he was going to get that person,” Sagastume testified, just before the morning recess.
On redirect, prosecutor McGuire emphasized that Bout shook hands with Sagastume twice over the deal.
Dayan scoffed at that argument.
“Do you believe everyone who shakes your hand?” he asked.
“It depends,” Sagastume said.
“Then the answer is no,” Dayan concluded, shortly before Sagastume stepped down. “You don’t believe everyone that shakes your hand.”
Smulian returns to the stand today (Wednesday).