MANHATTAN (CN) – Victor Bout, depicted in nonfiction as “The Merchant of Death” and in Hollywood as the “Lord of War,” pointed an accusatory finger at federal agents at his sentencing hearing Thursday, as a federal judge gave him the minimum 25-year sentence based on qualms about the sting operation that caused his downfall.
A Russian national, Bout armed dictators, despots and warring factions in the Congo, Angola, Sierra Leone and other conflict zones around the world.
Sanctioned by the United Nations, Bout remained free for more than a decade until the U.S. government snared him in “Operation Relentless,” a sting in which undercover informants posed as guerrillas with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), which the U.S. classifies as a terrorist group.
Bout was defiant at his sentencing hearing. He turned to the federal agents who snared him, seated in the front row, and pointed at them when his time to speak came.
“I am not guilty,” he began, speaking in Russian through an interpreter. “They will live with this truth. They will have to go to bed with this truth.”
While acknowledging Bout was a dangerous man, U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin indicated that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency might have overstepped its bounds in targeting him in a sting operation, as he had no confirmed ties to the drug trade.
Paraphrasing Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, Scheindlin said, “This country does not purport to be the Supreme Court of the entire world.”
Thai authorities arrested Bout on March 6, 2008, after he and the informants shook hands on a deal to deliver the phony FARC guerrillas surface-to-air missiles, tons of explosives, guns, ammunition, mines and weapon-ready airplanes.
Bout and Russia immediately raised objections about the sting, which would be illegal in Russia.
Though the FARC has a long history of ransom kidnappings, drug running and political violence, Russia does not view the self-described Marxist-Leninist revolutionary group as a terrorist organization.
The United States won Bout’s extradition to Manhattan Federal Court, where a unanimous jury convicted him on four terrorism-related charges. The most serious count, conspiracy to sell missiles, carried a 25-year minimum.
Bout’s attorney Albert Dayan insisted that the case consisted of “nothing but talk,” referring to the hours of secretly recorded conversations in which Bout arranged arms sales with the phony FARC guerrillas.
Dayan claimed that the U.S. Constitution protected such talk.
Claiming that the U.S. wanted Bout’s head on a “silver platter,” Dayan compared his client to Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish French officer whose false treason charges came to symbolize the virulence of European anti-Semitism at the end of the 19th century.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon McGuire said that Dayan’s comparison, and Bout’s outrage, were not worthy of comment.
“Frankly, they don’t merit any response,” McGuire said.
“It was Viktor Bout, not the confidential sources, who suggested the quantities of weapons. It was Viktor Bout who said there were 100 surface-to-air missiles. That’s a chilling thought.”
In secretly recorded conversations, Bout suggested the informants buy “tons” of C-4 explosives, and talked his purported FARC buyers up from 1 to 5 tons, McGuire said.
“These kind of statements in this day in age would be alarming from an amateur,” he said.
Scheindlin also rejected Dayan’s portrayal of Bout as an innocent.
“Indeed, the public does need protection from this defendant,” she said, adding that 25 years would suffice.
After rattling off his long list of his suspected ties to dictators, she noted that Bout’s last confirmed arms sale occurred several years ago, and there was no evidence that he was involved in drug activity.
In addition to his incarceration, Bout must forfeit $15 million.
Dayan indicated that he planned to file an appeal.