NEW YORK — A Russian man who became known as the "Merchant of Death" for his exploits in arms sales markets worldwide is set to learn Thursday how long he'll be in U.S. prison after his defense lawyers asked a judge to set him free and prosecutors asked that he never get out.
Viktor Bout, 45, faces a mandatory minimum of 25 years in prison and possibly life during sentencing for his conviction on terrorism charges. His lawyers have asked U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin to throw out his conviction, saying he's a political prisoner who stepped into a vindictive U.S. government sting operation.
Federal prosecutors say Bout should spend life in prison because he agreed "without hesitation and with frightening speed" to ship "a breathtaking arsenal of weapons," including hundreds of surface-to-air missiles, machine guns and sniper rifles along with 10 million rounds of ammunition to men he believed represented a foreign terrorist organization willing to kill Americans in Colombia.
They say his weapons fueled armed conflicts in some of the world's most treacherous hot spots, including Rwanda, Angola and the Congo and that he was looking for new arms deals in places like Libya and Tanzania when he was arrested.
Lawyers for Bout, who was the inspiration for an arms dealer character played by Nicolas Cage in the 2005 film "Lord of War," say their client became a political prisoner after Drug Enforcement Administration agents coaxed him from his Russian home to Thailand, where he was arrested in March 2008. They say the charges stemmed from a made-up scenario to deliver weapons to rebels in South America to shoot down American helicopter pilots.
"The relentless pursuit of Viktor Bout and the abominable design to create a criminal case against him that brings him before this court for sentencing is the product of malice and object of private politics stemming from the then White House," defense attorney Albert Dayan wrote in a letter to Scheindlin, a judge who recently ordered Bout moved from solitary confinement into the general prison population.
Dayan said the prosecution resulted from "outrageous, inexcusable government conduct" to get his client even after Bout rebuffed the first approach by U.S. operatives by saying the Russian government had ordered him to withdraw from any illegal arms deals.
Dayan said his client faked his way through negotiations for a $15 million to $20 million arms deal so he could sell two shoddy cargo planes for $5 million to U.S. government operatives. He said the operatives followed a well scripted dialogue of anti-Americanism that would whip American jurors into "a blind rage ... and ultimately to conviction."
Dayan said Bout's conviction culminated a plan put in motion by the U.S. to avenge the embarrassing revelation that U.S. military contractors had arranged in late 2003 with Bout-owned or Bout-controlled companies to deliver tents, food and other supplies for U.S. firms working for the U.S. military in Iraq.
The deliveries occurred despite United Nations sanctions imposed against Bout since 2001 because of his reputation as a notorious illegal arms dealer, Dayan said.
The lawyer noted that the U.S. Treasury Department imposed its own ban on dealings with Bout in July 2004, citing in part the "unproven allegation" that Bout made $50 million in profits from arms transfers to the Taliban when Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida were based in Afghanistan.
Federal prosecutors said the government initiated its investigation in 2007 because Bout "constituted a threat to the United States and to the international community based on his reported history of arming some of the world's most violent and destabilizing dictators and regimes."
"Although Bout has often described himself as nothing more than a businessman, he was a businessman of the most dangerous order," prosecutors said in their memo. "Transnational criminals like Bout who are ready, willing and able to arm terrorists transform their customers from intolerant ideologues into lethal criminals who pose the gravest risk to civilized societies."