Victor Bout pleads not guilty

RUSSIA’S so-called “Merchant of Death” accused of running a global arms empire, pleaded not guilty to terrorism charges on Wednesday, after he was extradited by Thailand against Moscow’s wishes.

“He will plead not guilty,” a lawyer for Viktor Bout, 43, told a New York federal court. Judge Shira Scheindlin ordered Bout detained until a hearing on January 10. He faces a maximum penalty of life in prison and minimum of 25 years if found guilty.  Bout is charged with attempting to sell Colombia’s FARC rebels an arsenal of surface-to-air missiles and infantry weapons between November 2007 and March 2008.

US prosecutors allege he ran one of the world’s most extensive arms trafficking networks and was trapped in a 2008 sting operation in which he believed he was selling a large arsenal to Colombia’s FARC narco-guerrillas, designated a terrorist organisation by Washington.

The FARC representative he allegedly thought he was meeting in Bangkok was in fact a US undercover agent from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).  Despite his allegedly lucrative weapons empire, Bout insisted to the judge that he needed a court-appointed lawyer.

According to Preet Bharara, US attorney for Manhattan, Bout planned to sell FARC more than 700 surface-to-air missiles, 5000 Kalashnikov assault rifles, landmines, millions of rounds of ammunition, and ultra-light airplanes that could be fitted with weaponry.  “It was an arsenal that would be the envy of some small countries,” Bharara told a news conference.

Bout arrived in New York late Tuesday after a dramatic exit from Thailand, which only agreed to his extradition after two years of legal battles, during which it was subject to intense pressure from both Moscow and Washington.  US Attorney General Eric Holder called Bout’s capture “a victory for the rule of law worldwide”, while Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos told reporters in Bogota that Bout “should pay”.

But Russia said the burly, mustachioed Bout had been subjected to an “illegal extradition”. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow would support Bout “by all means” from “extreme injustice” and called for the US to grant him full consular access without delay.  “They (the United States) are obliged to fulfill international norms. We expect that this will be done urgently,” the Interfax news agency quoted him as telling reporters in the Nigerian capital Abuja.

“If there is a delay in the consular access then this will be another violation of the norms of international rules which have already been broken more than once in this case,” he added.  Bout’s clients have allegedly included the Taliban and al-Qaeda, with payments allegedly running from hard cash to blood diamonds.

His alleged exploits earned him the nickname “Merchant of Death” and “Lord of War,” after a movie starring Nicolas Cage who is said to have modelled his character on Bout.  “For more than a decade, Mr Bout is alleged to have plied a deadly trade in surface-to-air missiles, land mines, bullets, death and destruction,” said Michele Leonhart, acting administrator of the DEA.

“Fortunately, with his arrest, extradition, and pending prosecution in the Southern District of New York, his last alleged attempt to deal in death means that he will finally face justice.”

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