MANHATTAN (CN) – International arms smuggler Viktor Bout should not face solitary confinement, a federal judge insisted at a combative hearing on Friday afternoon.
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 in November, and U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin refused to set aside the verdict at a hearing on Thursday.
At that hearing, Scheindlin reportedly criticized the conditions of Bout’s imprisonment as “harsh.” She convened the Friday afternoon hearing to leave no doubt that those conditions must change.
A Jan. 20, 2011, administration order called for Bout’s incarceration in a maximum-security cell of the Metropolitan Correctional Center for 23 hours per day. Adam Johnson, the prison’s supervising attorney, said that Bout usually declines the hour per day in which he is allowed to use the recreational center.
Bout’s attorney Albert Dayan says the center is an indoor cell much like his own, in which he cannot interact with the other inmates. Bout’s only source of outside air comes from the occasional “crack” to the recreation room’s window, Dayan said.
While the prison accommodates Bout’s vegetarian diet, Bout says he is only fed oatmeal, peanut butter and beans in a pot.
He can only place a phone call or meet with his family once a month, Johnson said.
Scheindlin told Johnson that he should call Bout’s prison conditions by their name.
“Long-term solitary confinement is the way to put it,” Scheindlin said, adding that “studies have been conducted” on its effects.
A 2009 New Yorker article titled “Hellhole,” explored the movement to define isolation as torture. Psychologists for Social Responsibility have called supermax prisons “cruel, unusual and inhumane” in an open letter opposing the confinement of alleged WikiLeaks source Bradley Manning, before he was transferred from Quantico.
Suzanne Hastings, a warden at MCC, claimed that solitary was necessary to keep Bout from harming the guards, other inmates and himself.
Scheindlin brushed aside that argument, arguing that nothing in the record indicated that Bout was violent or linked to any terrorist organization.
“This is a businessman,” Scheindlin said, indicating Bout. “You might not like the business he’s in.”
That business, the judge pointed out later, was “the arms business.”
“This country sells a lot of arms,” Scheindlin added.
Though convicted of arming terrorists, the FARC militants that Bout agreed to arm were all undercover government informants.
“I’m familiar with this case, and I can distinguish it from other so-called terrorism cases,” Scheindlin said.
Kenneth Kaplan, Bout’s other attorney, cited cases in which inmates in the MCC’s terrorism unit were ordered into more humane detention.
One, Kathy Boudine, was convicted of felony murder and armed robbery in an operation with the Weather Underground.
Another, Mafia soldier Vincent Basciano, was placed in the section of the prison normally reserved for convicted terrorists until the 2nd Circuit intervened, Kaplan said.
“He was a dangerous guy,” Scheindlin said. “Didn’t he threaten a judge? I haven’t been threatened [by Bout].”
Scheindlin requested that prosecutors and defense attorneys file arguments about her ability to change the conditions of Bout’s confinement and judicial precedents for such actions.