MANHATTAN (CN) – Suspected international arms smuggler Viktor Bout, the reputed muse for the Hollywood blockbuster “Lord of War,” faced a jury for the first time this week for terrorism charges.
As opening statements began Wednesday, attorneys made no mention of Bout’s infamous reputation as a so-called “Merchant of Death,” the moniker coined by investigative journalist Douglas Farah’s in a book of the same name.
In several rounds of pretrial motions, prosecutors and defense attorneys struggled to sanitize the trial of Bout’s notoriety to make the jury focus only on the charges against him. Prosecutors, for example, may not cite the UN’s description of him as a “threat to world peace,” or name the war-torn countries he allegedly armed, including Rwanda, Libya and Liberia.
Instead, in his opening remarks, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brendan McGuire recapped the charges of the indictment.
Thai authorities arrested Bout in Bangkok after an international sting operation on March 6, 2008. Prosecutors say Bout 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 (FARC), which prosecutors described to jurors as a terrorist organization that smuggled cocaine to fund violence against Colombia and the United States.
Breaking down the sales by the numbers, McGuire said that Bout promised 100 surface-to-air missiles, 20,000 high-powered rifles and 10 million rounds of ammunition. The indictment states that he also promised FARC contacts that he would sell them various Russian spare parts for rifles, anti-personnel land mines and C-4 explosives, night-vision equipment, and weapon-ready specialized aircraft.
“He was caught on tape, in the act, by the DEA,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory McGuire summarized.
Defense attorney Albert Dayan, as he indicated he would, told jurors that Bout was simply an entrepreneur in the “air freight transportation business” snared in a “real-life con game” by DEA agents.
Prosecutors say Bout was enthusiastic about helping the agents he believed were FARC members.
“Your fight is my fight,” Bout allegedly told the agents in a wiretapped conversation.
Dayan told jurors that the agents “goaded him with this anti-American chant” to “prejudice him in your eyes.” He said that the lure of a $5 million sale made him “compassionate toward the purchaser,” and compared Bout’s position to that of a salesman talking about baseball to a roomful of customers wearing Yankees hats.
Neither the prosecutors nor the defense attorneys were shy about discussing the bottom lines behind arms sales or covert operations.
The trial’s first witness, DEA Special Agent William Brown, laid out the salaries of the well-paid confidential informants. One, Mike Snow, collected $25,000 as a first time informant, Brown said. Long-time veteran “Carlos” cashed in $7.5 million from the DEA and the U.S. State Department over nine years, and “Ricardo” raked in a cool $320,000, he added.
Pre-empting a likely defense argument, prosecutor McGuire admitted in advance that cooperating witnesses often testify in exchange for lenient sentencing or money.
“It means that Smulion will not testify out of the goodness of his heart, or a sense of civic duty,” McGuire acknowledged.
But he promised that the testimony of the prosecution’s witnesses would be consistent with the reams of documents, emails, text messages, wiretapped recordings and physical evidence that they would present.
“You may not like them,” McGuire said, referring to the witnesses. “The issue is whether you believe them.”
Defense Attorney Albert Dayan said that the same tapes that prosecutors promised would incriminate Bout actually exonerated him.
“They say that unfortunately for Viktor, the meeting was recorded,” Dayan said. “Fortunately for Viktor, the meeting was recorded.”
McGuire handed Special Agent Brown piles of CDs and tapes of those recordings on the witness stand during direct examination.
Witness testimony continues on Monday.