MANHATTAN (CN) – Defense attorneys for suspected international arms smuggler Viktor Bout, portrayed in film as the “Lord of War” and in nonfiction as the “Merchant of Death,” plan to tell jurors that their client never sold a weapon.
“He was in the air-transportation business,” defense attorney Albert Dayan said at a Wednesday hearing.
The United Nations repeatedly sanctioned Bout for allegedly arming war criminals and extremely violent regimes in Liberia, Angola and the Congo for at least a decade, but he remained a free man for several years.
Now that he will stand trial in the United States, a jury will not hear the names of the some of the countries he allegedly armed for fear that their notoriety will prevent him from getting a fair trial, a federal judge ruled.
On March 6, 2008, Thai authorities arrested Bout in Bangkok as part of an international sting operation. Prosecutors say Bout had conspired with Andrew Smulian to sell millions of dollars worth of weapons to Drug Enforcement Administration agents posing as members of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, a designated terrorist organization believed to fund violence against Colombia and the United States through cocaine smuggling.
A grand jury indicted Bout a month later on charges of conspiring to kill U.S. nationals; to kill officers and employees of the United States; to acquire, transfer, and use antiaircraft missiles; and to provide material support to terrorism.
Although Smulian pleaded guilty to identical counts, Bout has fought his charges and lost two attempts to shake them off.
With trial approaching, U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin sought ways to “sanitize” Bout’s notoriety to make sure a jury focuses only on his charges.
Prosecutors may mention Bout’s UN sanctions but cannot reference him as being a “threat to world peace.”
There can be no mention of Rwanda, the country where 800,000 people were murdered in a 1994 genocide, she ruled.
Bout reportedly denied sending arms to the war-torn country.
Libya and Liberia also cannot be named, the judge added.
As part of Resolution 1532, the UN Security Council found that Bout had supported former Liberian President Charles Taylor’s regime and his efforts to destabilize Sierra Leone and gain access to blood diamonds, prosecutors emphasized in court documents.
The government can freely connect Bout to Angola and the Congo, however, because Americans are less familiar with the bloody civil wars of these two nations, Scheindlin ruled.
“I’ve been working with jurors for 20 years, and I’m shocked by how little they know about a lot of things,” she said.
Angola-based União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola (UNITA) can be brought up, but it cannot be described as an “armed resistance” group because of the phrase’s terrorism implications.
Scheindlin appeared surprised when defense attorney Dayan said he would not describe Bout as an arms dealer.
“Your position is that he was not an arms dealer,” Scheindlin asked.
Bout “never sold, never brokered,” Dayan insisted, adding that his client is in the air-transportation business.
Prosecutors plan to undermine that position with emails purporting to show negotiations of a deal.
Hearings for limiting motions will continue on Sept. 7.
Once safe for a jury, a trial will proceed on Oct. 11.