MANHATTAN (CN) – Prosecutors built enough of a case against suspected international arms smuggler Viktor Bout to bring him to trial, a federal judge said Tuesday, while questioning whether the evidence can prove one of the central claims of the indictment.
Bout’s exploits loosely formed the basis for Nicholas Cage’s character in the film “Lord of War,” and were the subject of investigative journalist Douglas Farah’s book, “The Merchant of Death.”
Thai authorities arrested Bout in Bangkok after an international sting operation on March 6, 2008. Bout was suspected of conspiring 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 (FARC), a designated terrorist organization believed to smuggle cocaine to fund violence against Colombia and the United States.
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 charges, Bout has fought his charges and lost an earlier attempt to shake off his indictment on jurisdictional grounds.
On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Scheindlin brushed off a different motion by Bout to dismiss his indictment on the grounds of vindictive prosecution.
According to the 20-page order, Bout believed federal prosecutors went after him because the Department of Defense was embarrassed by revelations that U.S. military contractors in Iraq paid for his services.
He claimed it came to light that, in 2006, his “front-companies were supplying the United States military in Iraq” with tents, food and other supplies, even though the Office of Foreign Assets Control’s prohibited any U.S. national from doing business with him.
A year later, then-Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor Juan Zarate allegedly challenged the DEA to capture Bout. In an interview with “60 Minutes,” Zarate said DEA chief Michael Braun quickly got on board. “He was going down, he was in our crosshairs,” Zarate said of Bout.
Scheindlin said prosecutors have a “perfectly acceptable reason” to target Bout, who the government says armed “some of the world’s most violent and destabilizing dictators and regimes.”
“Even if Bout’s alleged assistance to U.S. military efforts in Iraq can properly be categorized as a ‘protected legal right,’ his assistance to war criminals and to outlawed and extremely violent regimes in Liberia, Angola, and the Congo defeats any inference that the decision to investigate and prosecute him ‘resulted solely from [his] exercise of [any such] protected legal right,'” Scheindlin wrote.
As she had in a recent hearing, Scheindlin reiterated that Bout cannot help his case with Wikileaks cables he submitted as evidence. The cables allegedly say that the federal government pressured Thai courts to extradite him, a charge that the judge characterized as an unremarkable facet of international diplomacy.
Scheindlin gave more consideration to Bout’s claims that prosecutors could not prove that he acted with “malice aforethought.”
Bout claims that he was acting as a businessman in his alleged arms sale to DEA agents posing as FARC members.
Prosecutors say he was conspiring to kill Americans, quoting Bout as telling the undercover agents “the United States was also his enemy” and that “the fight against the United States was also his fight.”
At a recent hearing, Bout’s attorney Albert Dayan said the remarks could have been a “salesman pitch,” but Scheindlin ruled that the statements gave just enough evidence to withstand a dismissal.
“Whether the evidence at trial will bear this element out is another matter,” she added.
As widely reported, Scheindlin previously described the case against Bout as “thin.”
Trial is slated for Oct. 11.