Intentions at Heart of Arms-Trafficking Case
At the time of his arrest in 2008, Viktor Bout was either an illegal arms dealer intent on selling 100 tons of explosives, grenade launchers and other weapons to terrorists — or an innocent and broke businessman in a scheme to sell a pair of old airplanes. At least, those are the two portraits of the 44-year-old Russian that have been offered in Federal District Court in Manhattan.
The debate over Mr. Bout’s true intentions leading up to his arrest in an American-led sting operation in Thailand is drawing to a close, and on Monday, a jury heard closing arguments in a trial that has lasted nearly three weeks.
The prosecution, which is to present its final rebuttal on Tuesday, called seven witnesses in the trial, including Mr. Bout’s former associate, Andrew Smulian, and two Drug Enforcement Administration informants who posed as members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, a group labeled a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department. The defense called no witnesses.
In his closing argument, the prosecutor, Anjan Sahni, highlighted e-mail exchanges and recorded telephone conversations between Mr. Bout and his associates, including a man Mr. Bout believed, he said, was a FARC representative. Mr. Bout’s goal was “unmistakably clear,” Mr. Sahni said: to sell up to 30,000 AK-47 rifles, 10 million rounds of ammunition, 800 missiles and 5 tons of C-4 explosives, among other military equipment, to FARC, understanding that the group intended to use the arms to kill American citizens.
“These were the tools of waging war,” Mr. Sahni told jurors.
In his own closing argument, Mr. Bout’s lawyer, Albert Y. Dayan, admitted that he was nervous and thanked Mr. Bout for “trusting me with the most difficult decision of his life.” He said the four conspiracy charges leveled at his client were supported by nothing but “speculation, innuendo and conjecture.”
Mr. Dayan’s core argument was that Mr. Bout had humored the supposed FARC representatives’ interest in weapons, and even encouraged it, in an attempt to sell two cargo planes that he intended to persuade the men were necessary for the delivery of the weapons. Mr. Dayan emphasized that Mr. Bout never actually believed the men were members of FARC and said his client was “acting out” throughout their dealings; a weapons deal, Mr. Dayan said, was never agreed upon, nor did Mr. Bout ever plan on delivering any military equipment.
Mr. Dayan said that by the time of his arrest, Mr. Bout had made the transition from a legal arms-dealing trade to other business opportunities, like real estate, and the defense lawyer seemed to blame the fiasco on Mr. Smulian, Mr. Bout’s former associate. While Mr. Bout fought extradition in Thai courts after his arrest, Mr. Smulian voluntarily traveled to the United States and has cooperated with prosecutors for three and a half years.
In the time leading up to the sting operation in Thailand, Mr. Smulian became “intoxicated” with the thought of a “retirement plan,” Mr. Dayan said, arguing that it was Mr. Smulian who had masterminded the FARC deal, pushing a relationship with the group onto a reluctant Mr. Bout.
Mr. Smulian, who in 2008 pleaded guilty to conspiring to sell arms with Mr. Bout, said in his testimony that he hoped to reduce his prison sentence by offering “substantial cooperation” to prosecutors. Still, he said his priority was telling the truth — a statement that Mr. Dayan was quick to denounce.
“Words are like wind,” Mr. Dayan told jurors. He noted that if a major arms deal — big enough to supply an army of up to 12,000 FARC members, according to the prosecution — could be reached without a written agreement or other binding details, then “every other guy could sell the Brooklyn Bridge on a handshake.”
But words and intentions, in the form of e-mails brimming with code names and conversations recorded by local authorities in places like the Caribbean island of Curaçao, are vital to the prosecution’s case.
Mr. Sahni instructed the jury to focus on what he said was an understanding between Mr. Bout and Mr. Smulian to sell arms to the men posing as members of the FARC.
“The crimes are the agreements themselves,” he said, not an actual exchange of weapons or the murder of any Americans.
He paraphrased a recorded conversation between Mr. Bout and the D.E.A. informants during their meeting in a Sofitel hotel in Bangkok, shortly before Mr. Bout and Mr. Smulian were arrested: “We are together; we have the same enemy. It’s not business. It’s my fight. I’m fighting the U.S. for 15 years now.”
“The evidence points to only one conclusion,” Mr. Sahni told jurors. Which conclusion — his or Mr. Dayan’s — remains to be seen.