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International weapons trafficker Viktor Bout of Russia was sentenced to 25 years in prison in a New York court yesterday, ending a four-year bid to bring to justice the man who is accused of arming Al Qaeda and the Taliban, among others.
Mr. Bout, nicknamed the "merchant of death," was taken into custody in 2008 in Bangkok, Thailand, in a US Drug Enforcement Agency sting in which agents pretended to be members of Colombia's rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). It took 2-1/2 years to extradite him to the US to stand trial, a process Russia considered to be a violation of international law.
The former Soviet officer was convicted last fall of conspiring to kill American citizens, officers, and employees by agreeing to sell weapons to FARC, which he believed was "intent on killing Americans," The New York Times reports. The deal included "tens of thousands of AK-47 rifles, millions of rounds of ammunition, hundreds of missiles, ultra-lightweight airplanes and other military equipment."
Prosecutors had sought a life sentence for Bout, but the fact that he was captured in a sting appeared to work in his favor, the Associated Press reports. US District Judge Shira Scheindlin said that 25 years was sufficient because "there was no evidence … Bout would have been charged with seeking to harm Americans if not approached by informants posing as Colombian rebels."
According to AP, Bout ran a global cargo operation "from Afghanistan to Angola" for almost two decades, reportedly building up a fortune of $6 billion. He delivered everything from "raw minerals to gladiolas, drilling equipment to frozen fish," but his specialty was black-market weapons from Russian stocks and Eastern European factories. His trafficking inspired the Nicholas Cage film "Lord of War."
The US has alleged that Bout's operation armed the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the months leading up to the 9/11 attacks. His planes were then headquartered in the United Arab Emirates, and the US, United Nations, and Britain received a growing number of reports that they were delivering supplies to the Taliban, under whose rule Al Qaeda operated freely in Afghanistan.
Russia has viewed the prosecution against Bout as politically motivated since he was first arrested in Thailand and was furious when the US extradited him from Thailand to the US in November 2010, The Christian Science Monitor reported at the time. Viktor Baranets, a military columnist for the Moscow daily Komsomolskaya Pravda, said that had the US worked with Russia, rather than acting unilaterally, Russia's response might have been different.
"As it is, we have a lot of questions. Many people in Russia believe that Bout is being framed. Some think that Bout was removed because he's a competitor of American arms interests, or otherwise crossed them. The case against him contains a lot of strong accusations, but the substance looks thin," Mr. Baranets said.
Today Russia's Foreign Ministry said it would make every effort to have Bout repatriated and that it would be a "top priority" in US-Russia relations, official news outlet RIA Novosti reports. Russia insists that Bout's capture and trial were unfair.
"In spite of the unreliability of the evidence, the illegal character of his arrest involving the participation of US special service agents in Thailand and the subsequent extradition, American legal officials, having carried out a political order, ignored the arguments of lawyers and numerous appeals from all levels in defense of this Russian citizen," the Russian ministry said.
"Long before the sentence was given to Bout, the authorities declared him the 'Merchant of Death' and almost an international terrorist, but this accusation was based exclusively on his imputed 'criminal intent'," the Ministry added.
"From there, an attempt was made to force him to admit his guilt by creating unbearable conditions for detention, by both physical and psychological means. The absolutely unacceptable campaign by the American media was aimed at influencing the jury and the judicial process in the 'right direction.' "
Bout proclaimed his innocence until the end, insisting “I am not guilty. I never intended to kill anyone and I never intended to sell arms to anyone," The New York Times reports.