Viktor Bout, the alleged Russian arms dealer known as "the Merchant of Death," who was extradited to the United States to face terrorism charges, pleaded not guilty in a federal court in New York City today and was ordered held without bail.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said Bout was extradited to the United States from Thailand, where he was arrested, for his "alleged agreement to supply an arsenal of military-grade weapons to a man he believed was representing the Colombian terrorist group FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), and was bent on killing Americans."
Bout is being held in a high-security detention facility in Manhattan pending trial. Despite a personal wealth estimated to be in the range of six billion dollars, he requested and received a court-appointed lawyer, whose fee will be paid by U.S. taxpayers.
U.S. law enforcement agencies spent two years in a complex undercover operation that spanned three continents in their effort to apprehend Bout. He was arrested in Bangkok in March 2008 and fought the U.S. extradition request, but the Thai government voted to comply with Washington.
Bharara said U.S. informants had posed as representatives of FARC to draw Bout in.
"The informants, as part of the investigation and at the direction of DEA (U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency) agents, requested military-grade weapons from Bout and his associate, Andrew Smulian, that they said would be used to kill Americans and attack American interests, specifically U.S. pilots who were working in Colombia," said the prosecuting attorney.
Washington's actions in the case have angered Russia. Speaking this week in Kenya, where he is traveling on official business, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Bout's extradition was the result of "unprecedented political pressure on Thailand's legal procedure and the Thai government."
He added, "This whole affair is an example of glaring injustice and we, as a state, will continue to provide all the necessary assistance to Viktor Bout as a Russian citizen."
Bout has been charged with conspiring to kill American citizens, conspiring to kill U.S. officers and government employees, conspiring to use acquired anti-aircraft missiles, and conspiring to provide material support to a designated terrorist organization.
If convicted on all charges he faces a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 25 years and a maximum of life imprisonment.
"The cooperation in this case spanned the globe and should send a message that no one is beyond the reach of the law, no one should doubt the international commitment to justice, and no one should ever think that he can plot to kill Americans with impunity," said Bharara.
He said the indictment against Bout details alleged offers he made to sell more than 700 surface-to-air missiles; 5,000 AK-47 assault rifles; anti-personnel land mines; C4 high-power explosives; millions of rounds of ammunition; ultra-light airplanes that can be outfitted with grenade launchers and missiles; unmanned aerial vehicles with a range of over 200 kilometers; and two cargo planes for delivering the armaments.
Bharara called it "an arsenal that would be the envy of some small countries."
A telephone conversation from 2008 between Bout and a U.S. informant that was secretly recorded by authorities provided key evidence of Bout's intentions against America, he added: "Viktor Bout was himself recorded during a two-hour discussion offering up the specific arms that I described. While being told that they were needed for the purpose of killing American pilots, he also expressed his solidarity with the FARC and said that the fight against the United States was his fight, too."
Prosecutors also announced the unsealing of a July 2008 guilty plea by Bout's associate, Smulian, another defendant in the case. Bharara said Smulian admitted that he conspired with Bout to carry out a weapons deal with FARC. He is cooperating with the U.S. government.
Besides his alleged support for FARC, Bout has been accused of supplying weapons that fueled civil wars from the Middle East to Africa. Among his clients were the convicted war criminal Charles Taylor from Liberia, the Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi, and members of the former Taliban government that once ran Afghanistan.
Bout was reportedly the inspiration for the arms dealer character played by Nicolas Cage in the 2005 Hollywood film, "Lord of War."
On his personal website Bout presents a lighter and livelier image of himself. The text on the home page reads: "Viktor Bout is a dynamic, charismatic, spontaneous, well-dressed, well-spoken, and highly energetic person who can easily communicate in several languages including Russian, Portuguese, English, French, Arabic, among several others. He is a born salesman with undying love for aviation and eternal drive to succeed."
Bout's court appointed lawyer, Sabrina Schroff, said she plans to file a petition for bail but until the court rules on the application, he will remain in custody.
Even as she handles Bout's case, Schroff is representing another high-profile Russian citizen awaiting trial in New York: Sergey Aleynikov, a programmer accused of stealing a proprietary computer code from the financial giant Goldman Sachs.
Bout's next court appearance is scheduled for January 10, 2011.