MANHATTAN (CN) – In a letter date-stamped on the eve of jury deliberations, eight members of the Russian Parliament members warned “Your Honor, Madam Judge!” that convicting Viktor Bout could “cause harm to the interests and reputation of the Russian Federation and to previously reached bilateral agreements within the framework of the ‘reset’ policy of Russian-American relations.”
The letter to U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin, apparently on letterhead of the State Duma, dated Oct. 7 but date-stamped Oct. 31 by the Federal Court in Manhattan, begins: “Your Honor, Madam Judge!
“Members of Parliament of the Supreme Legislative Body of Russia, Deputies of the Russian Federation State Duma are appealing to Your Honor amid hopes that your high level of professionalism, rich life experience, independent thinking and adherence to ideals of humanism will help to impartially and objectively present to the jurors all circumstances leading to the arrest in Thailand of our countryman Victor Anatolievich Bout and to his subsequent extradition to the United States, detention and trial.
“The very fact of his arrest, which was instigated by the US Secret Service and later his extradition to the United States, carried out with grave violations of the Thai Law, International Law as well as human rights evoke among us considerable concern and alarm for citizen of Russia Victor Bout’s future.
“Victor Bout’s situation is aggravated by the fact that US mass media imposed on the public an absolutely false image of him: of an allegedly greedy swindler, cynical arms tycoon and unscrupulous arms dealer connected to such ominous organizations as the Taliban and the ‘brainchild’ of Bin Laden – ‘al-Qaeda’.
But in reality everything is completely the opposite. …”
After claiming that Bout is actually on the Taliban’s and al-Qaeda’s “black lists” because he organized the “bold escape” of a Russian flight crew from Taliban captivity, the deputies say: “In this context, the campaign launched against Bout by mass media on an international scale looks like a premeditated act aimed at discrediting a Russian citizen and Russia.”
Five paragraphs later, the deputies add: “In business circles, among colleagues, friend and relatives, Victor Bout has been regarded for a long time as an honest, respectable, moral and kind-hearted person and as a law-abiding, responsible and trustworthy businessman. Victor Bout has never been accused of a crime within the territory of the Russian Federation. He is an exemplary family man.
“The Deputies of the State Duma of the Russian Federation believe that this case demonstrates the existence of political motivation as well as attempts made by certain US circles to artificially attach this topic to the problem of combating international terrorism and, thus, to cause harm to the interests and reputation of the Russian Federation and to previously reached bilateral agreements within the framework of the ‘reset’ policy of Russian-American relations. The recently declared, by the leaders of our countries, ‘reset’ of relations between the US and Russia envisages policymaking in the spirit of mutual respect of States and peoples of our countries and rigorous adherence to the rights of citizens of the US and Russia. Whether or not this ‘reset’ in fact takes place -today this depends not only on the Presidents of our countries but on each and every representative of the branches of power: executive, legislative and judicial.”
Bout was arrested in Thailand on March 6, 2008, after undercover DEA informants posing as leftist Colombian guerrillas set him up in a sting. Some of those informants testified at Bout’s trial.
In their letter, the Russian lawmakers object to the sting. In many countries, such sting operations themselves are illegal: “For Russians it is also difficult to understand why V. Bout is being charged with attempting to conspire with the intent to kill as well as other serious crimes when in fact he was conversing not with the FARC but with US paid informants who tried to involve him in illegal activities. Moreover, it is difficult for Russians to agree that a person can be charged with a crime solely on the basis of statements allegedly spoken, in total absence of hard evidence attesting to the fact that in reality and materially he took part in a conspiracy.
“Furthermore, according to Russian Law and legislation of most countries in the world (including Thailand where V. Bout was arrested), the FARC is not deemed to be a terrorist organization.
“We therefore ask Your Honor to pay special attention to the severe conditions of V. Bout’s detention in Thailand and in the US that also violate human rights and International Law and negatively affect our countryman’s physical and mental health.”
During summations, Assistant U.S. Attorney Guruanjan Sahni told the jury more than 15 times that Bout tried to arm FARC “terrorists.” The courtroom is a few blocks away from the former World Trade Center towers.
Bout, allegedly the inspiration for the Hollywood movie “The Lord of War,” and the subject of the nonfiction book, “The Merchant of Death,” was under United Nations sanctions for years before he was snared in the DEA sting. He was regarded as an equal-opportunity arms dealer: Belgian intelligence officials said he sold $50 million in weapons to the Taliban at about the same time he helped the Russian cargo crew escape, in the action for which the Russian deputies praise him.
A member of Human Rights First, formerly the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, said the deputies’ letter showed little understanding of U.S. law.
“The defense, and the signatories to this letter, are up in arms that Bout is only facing charges because of ‘provocation’ by the DEA,” Taimur Rabbani told Courthouse News in an email.
Rabbani said the defense likely stopped short of raising an entrapment defense for strategic reasons. “Raising that defense would have been treacherous for the defense, because it would have allowed prosecutors to introduce certain evidence of Viktor Bout’s past actions to prove his predispositions,” Rabbani wrote.
In the concluding paragraph of the 2-page letter (in the English translation; the Russian version is closer to 3 pages), the deputies wrote: “The American System of Justice is famous for the independence and objectivity of its court rulings. We hope that you will continue this noble tradition and impartially, objectively and without prejudice present to the jurors every detail in V. Bout’s case and that they will render a reasonable, fair and humane verdict.”
The letter is signed, “Respectfully,” by Deputies Lukyanova, Sechenov, E.G. Drapeko, S.V. Ivanov, Gudkov, A. Aksyenova, Leparava, and an illegible signature.
“There may be something lost in the translation here, but their request doesn’t seem to make much sense,” Rabbani said.
Judge Scheindlin instructed the jurors on Tuesday afternoon. Deliberations continue today (Wednesday).