MANHATTAN (CN) - International arms smuggler Viktor Bout must be transferred to general population of Manhattan Correctional Center, a federal judge ruled, in an order slamming solitary confinement as unconstitutional.
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 guerrillas from the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC).
A federal jury convicted him last November, but Bout has spent 23-hours-a-day alone in a prison ever since he was extradited to the U.S. in 2010.
U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin put an end to those conditions on Friday.
"After fifteen months in solitary confinement with extremely minimal human contact and mobility, Viktor Bout requests that he be transferred to general population. The Supreme Court has noted that '[p]rison walls do not form a barrier separating prison inmates from the protections o f the Constitution' and that '[w]hen a prison . . . practice offends a fundamental constitutional guarantee, federal courts will discharge their duty to protect constitutional rights.'
"Because I 'cannot simply defer to the Warden and abandon my duty to uphold the constitution,' I must grant Bout's request," Scheindlin wrote. (Citations omitted)
Her 18-page order details Bout's daily prison routine:
"Essentially, Bout is in solitary confinement residing in a one-man cell in which he eats, sleeps, and washes. He spends 23 hours a day in this cell and is taken out for one hour of exercise per day in a room only slightly larger than his cell. He is alone for his exercise period. The cell has two small frosted glass windows that allow very little natural light or fresh air. Other than visits with counsel, trips to court, a family visit once a week, or trips upstairs to access to electronic evidence (during trial preparation), he does not leave his cell. While he has some limited access to commissary, it is far more restrictive than the commissary privileges available to general population prisoners. He is only allowed one telephone call a month, which is an SHU limitation. He has no interaction with other prisoners. When transported off the SHU, he is placed in full restraints. Counsel concludes his letter with the claim that the prolonged solitary confinement that Bout has endured may have a serious adverse affect on his mental health," the order states. (Citations omitted)
Psychologists for Social Responsibility have called long-term isolation "cruel, unusual and inhumane" in an open letter opposing the confinement of alleged WikiLeaks source Bradley Manning, before he was transferred from Quantico.
Prison officials said solitary was needed in this case because Bout was convicted of conspiring to aide the FARC, which the U.S. considers a terrorist organization.
(Russia tolerates the Colombian militant group, which has a Marxist-Leninist orientation.)
Scheindlin rejected the prison officials' position, saying that even an Osama bin Laden associate charged with actively plotting terrorist bombings was given a more humane detention than Bout.
"Even in one of the most extreme examples cited by the Government - in which a defendant was charged with being an associate of Osama Bin Laden and conveying orders to the East African cell responsible for the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania - the BOP eased pre-trial conditions by permitting the defendant to have a cellmate and permitting him to have three telephone calls per week after fifteen months of solitary confinement," Scheindlin wrote, describing the case of Wadih el-Hage.
Bout, she added, was no Wadih el-Hage.
"This case differs significantly from a standard terrorism case," the order states. "As noted earlier, Bout was approached by government agents, posing as members of the FARC (a terrorist organization) and after many conversations agreed to sell them arms. There was absolutely no evidence at trial that he had any connection (now or ever) to any member of the FARC. To the contrary, the evidence showed that Bout performed research on the FARC because he knew little about them and that he was initially not inclined to do business with such an organization. Indeed, the evidence did not reveal any ties to any terrorist organization in the last ten years. Completely unsubstantiated allegations of 'affiliation with a terrorist organization is not sufficient cause' to single out a prisoner for administrative detention. Moreover, there was never any evidence offered at trial that Bout himself engaged in violent acts; rather, the evidence showed that he was a businessman engaged in arms trafficking."
Scheinlin called prison officials' concern about the wide publicity of the Bout case "a very weak and dangerous argument."
"Many, many defendants - such as white collar defendants engaged in fraud, or mobsters involved in the Mafia - receive broad publicity, but the defendants nonetheless are released on bail or assigned to general population," she wrote.
Scheindlin acknowledged that judges traditionally do not interfere with detention decisions.
"Although I recognize that courts are loathe to interfere with questions of prison administration, an area in which the BOP is best suited to make decisions, I cannot shirk my duty under the Constitution and Turner to ensure that Bout's confinement is not arbitrarily and excessively harsh," she wrote.
Scheindlin directed Bout's transfer "forthwith," in an order filed on Friday.
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