New York/Moscow, April 5 (Reuters): Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer caught in an undercover sting by US agents posing as Colombian guerrillas, has been sentenced to 25 years in jail by a judge in New York, prompting charges of political bias from Russia.
Bout, the subject of a book titled Merchant of Death, asserted his innocence during the sentencing yesterday, telling the judge through a Russian interpreter: “I never intended to kill anyone. I never intended to sell arms to anyone. God knows this truth.”
“These people know this truth,” he said, pointing at federal agents sitting in the front row. “They will live with this truth ... God forgive you. You will answer to him, not to me.”
Bout, who Amnesty International says has been involved in embargo-busting arms deals to human rights abusers in Angola, Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo, was arrested in Bangkok in 2008 after a US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) sting operation and later extradited to New York to face trial.
He was convicted by a Manhattan federal court jury last autumn after a three-week trial that centred on charges he agreed to sell arms to people he thought were militants intent on attacking American soldiers in Colombia.
Russia said the “groundless and biased” ruling was politically motivated. The foreign ministry said Russia would continue to seek Bout’s return to his country.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking to reporters in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana, said the court had made its ruling under an “unprecedented pressure” from the US authorities.
He said he would discuss Bout’s sentence with US secretary of state Hillary Clinton.
The sentencing comes at an uncertain time for Russian-US ties, with Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin next month and President Barack Obama facing a re-election battle, but analysts said it was unlikely to sour ties significantly.
“There may be additional declarations (from Russia), but I absolutely do not think this will affect relations,” said Maria Lipman, an expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “This is not a new case and ... the result of the trial was predictable.”
Despite a swell of anti-American rhetoric during Putin’s presidential campaign, Lipman said, Russia wants constructive relations with the US and Bout’s sentencing will not change that.
Bout’s capture came less than a year after the publication of Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible, written by investigative journalists Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun. The 2007 book chronicled Bout’s life as an arms dealer and how he evaded capture for years.
He was convicted on two counts of conspiracy to kill US nationals and officers of the United States and one count each of conspiracy to sell anti-aircraft missiles and providing material support to a terrorist organisation.
His attorneys have said they would appeal.
Defence attorney Albert Dayan argued yesterday that the government’s case was based entirely on Bout’s promises, rather than his actions, and, therefore, had “built-in reasonable doubt”.
US district judge Shira Scheindlin noted that federal sentencing guidelines called for a life sentence, due in part to Bout’s conviction for a crime of terrorism, but the fact his conduct was the result of a sting was a mitigating factor, despite his long history of arms dealing. US informants posed as arms buyers from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and met Bout in Thailand to buy an arsenal of military weaponry, which prosecutors said he agreed to provide.