NEW: Prosecutors say Bout wanted to kill Americans
NEW: Bout's defense team says he was duped by federal agents
Jurors must affirm they will not research Bout on the Internet, a court official says
The Russian businessman faces a wide range of counts
Accused Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout knowingly sold weapons to those he believed to be Colombian narco-rebels who intended to kill Americans, prosecutors said in opening statements in Bout’s trial Wednesday.
But Bout’s attorney argued that he was instead a mere transporter, duped by federal agents.
“This is not a complicated case,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Brendan McGuire. “He had the means to do the deal. He had the will to do the deal. And he agreed to do the deal.”
But defense attorney Albert Dayan countered that Bout had not been involved in illegal arms sales, telling jurors that federal agents baited the suspect into selling the weapons alongside a deal to sell airplanes.
“Anger and rage should not be a substitute for truth,” Dayan added.
The Russian businessman, widely dubbed the “merchant of death” by his accusers, is charged with a wide range of counts, including conspiracy to kill Americans, attempting to sell arms to undercover federal agents, wire fraud and violating U.N. Security Council sanctions.
Bout pleaded not guilty to all of the charges last year.
On Tuesday, a Manhattan federal judge asked jurors to sign a written assurance they will not look up reports on the Internet about the accused arms dealer.
“You must make every effort not to read about this case. That will not be easy,” Judge Shira Scheindlin told the 15 selected jurors.
International security experts say the charges in the trial encompass only a small fraction of what they believe Bout is responsible for.
Kathi Lynn Austin, an arms researcher, called Bout “the quintessential war profiteer” in an interview with CNN.
By providing larger and more-powerful arms than rebels would otherwise have had access to, Austin said, Bout “has actually initiated wars in countries such as Liberia and Sierra Leone.”
“He unquestionably made some of the worst wars of the 20th century, early 21st century, much worse than they would have been,” said Douglas Farah, a national security consultant who co-wrote a book about Bout.
The 2005 movie “Lord of War,” starring Nicholas Cage, was inspired by Bout’s life.
The heart of the charges against Bout stem from a 2008 sting operation in Thailand by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. According to a 2008 federal indictment, undercover agents posing as rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, attempted to buy larges caches of weapons from Bout.
Agents tried to buy 700 to 800 surface-to-air missiles, thousands of AK-47s, and landmines, according to the indictment. They told Bout that they wanted the arms “to kill Americans,” to which Bout said that he “was going to prepare everything the FARC needed.”
“It’s like getting Capone for a single homicide or a single jug of whiskey,” Farah said. “It’s actually what he was doing, but on a much smaller scale.” Al Capone was a powerful Chicago gangster of the 1920s who was sent to prison on tax evasion charges.
The DEA struggled to draw Bout out of his Russian homeland, which had long sheltered and defended him. Undercover agents met with Bout’s associates the world over, from Curacao to Copenhagen, in an attempt to set up a meeting with their target, according to the indictment.
“He wanted to close the deals himself, he liked to shake hands with the person he was selling the weapons to,” Farah said. “Ultimately, that was his undoing in Bangkok, because he wanted to fly in and close the deal himself.”
Bout has maintained that he was simply in the business of shipping, and has never been involved in arms sales.
“I’m not afraid. I don’t do anything in my life I should be afraid,” Bout told CNN’s Jill Dougherty in a 2002 interview in Moscow. “This whole story looks to me like a witch hunt.”