Suspected Russian arms merchant gets his day in a New York court

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A former Soviet Air Force officer accused of supplying governments, dissident groups and terrorist organizations with weapons used in bloody conflicts has pleaded not guilty to a terrorism charge in a New York federal district court, just hours after his extradition to the U.S. from Thailand.

Viktor Bout, 43, has been in custody since a March 2008 arrest in Bangkok, but his alleged crimes were detailed by an International Consortium of Investigative Journalists investigation eight years ago. The 2002 Making a Killing report detailed Bout’s lucrative business in covertly shipping bombs, rockets, launchers, rifles, and ammunition through his web of air cargo companies, which employed some 300 people and operated 40 to 60 aircraft.

According to the investigation, Bout and his partners had since the 1990s operated legitimate goods transport services between many parts of Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. A former associate called Bout “apolitical,” saying he did business with anyone who paid. Bout reportedly even helped organized a 1993 U.S.-led famine aid mission to Somalia. Bout’s epithet, “Merchant of Death”, was earned because of his well-cloaked alleged side business in supplying many of those countries with weapons of war disguised as ordinary cargo.

“The murder and mayhem of UNITA in Angola, the RUF in Sierra Leone and groups in Congo would not have been as terrible without Bout’s operations,” Peter Hain, the British Foreign Office Minister for Europe, told ICIJ in the 2002 investigation.

Bout, who speaks six languages and holds numerous passports, has always denied accusations of arms dealings and took special care to operate under the radar — exploiting loopholes in international air cargo regulations, operating out of airports with loose regulations, and weaving complicated trails of shipping stations and company facilities, according to Making a Killing.

Bout’s arrest in Thailand came about as the result of a U.S. sting operation in which he allegedly agreed to sell millions of dollars worth of weapons to Drug Enforcement Administration agents posing as members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. His delivery to the United States came after a two-year battle with Russia over extradition rights. Bout, who had been on Interpol’s red notice list since 2002, will be tried in U.S. federal courts and could receive up to 25 years in prison if convicted. His court-appointed lawyer pleaded not guilty on his behalf.

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