Tracking Viktor Bout: His Day in Court


Viktor Bout, accused arms dealer on trial in New York. / REUTERS

The long awaited trial for the world’s most notorious weapons smuggler, Viktor Bout, will begin this morning at 10:00 am in the Federal Courthouse for the U.S. Southern District of New York. I’ll arrive early, before the TV journalists set up their cameras and the court reporters bound up the courthouse stairs to take their seats in the gallery. Today is a milestone in the battle against war profiteers, and I want to be there from the start to catch every moment unfolding before me.

Two decades ago, I chose to become an investigator in the public interest. Working for human rights groups and the United Nations as an arms trafficking expert, I’ve documented Viktor Bout’s smuggling activities for fifteen years, beginning with his activities in Rwanda, the Congo (then Zaire) and Angola.

Its alarming that it took a sting operation by Drug Enforcement Agents (DEA) to build a case against Bout—when for years evidence of his gunrunning has been widely reported and recorded.

Currently, Bout is facing trial on charges of conspiring to kill Americans and material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

So while the trial is a first step, I don’t want Bout’s history of weapons trafficking for various official and rebel paymasters to be swept under the rug.

Which is why from the time the trial begins until the jury delivers its verdict, you can expect to find me sitting anxiously on a courtroom pew like an extra in one of television’s popular law and order procedurals. Only my presence will not be as a courtroom spectator in the fashion of The Good Wife. As far as I’m concerned, this trial resonates beyond the utter relief or sheer disappointment that a single verdict might engender. It carries the weight of a historic moment to change public conversations and policies on the scourge of unregulated arms smugglers and the permissive environment that allows them to operate.

Rarely does the opportunity come around for a criminal trial to help shed light on the links between transnational criminal networks, national security operations, and the paucity of international regulations and controls over war profiteering.  The Viktor Bout case holds such promise, Iran-Contra style.

Since I cut my professional teeth working as a wide-eyed junior researcher on the Iran-Contra Affair for the National Security Archives twenty three years ago, I recognize the parallel ingredients of both events: violations of arms embargoes, the override of domestic laws, cover ups, contraband hidden among humanitarian cargo, money trails, Russian-American imbroglios—and always, the smoking guns.

The key difference—and the one that I modestly hope to help correct—is that the real story behind the fast approaching courtroom drama lies considerably outside of the court reporting news frame. Since Bout was apprehended, most press accounts have simply regurgitated the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) recitation of events or provided updates on the extradition, legal developments, and pre-trial motions, leaving many hard questions unanswered.

Let me give you an example: the current terrorism charges against Bout stem from a sting operation conducted by the DEA for an alleged deal to supply the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a guerilla force fighting a decades-old insurgency against the Colombian government, with a large inventory of small arms and conventional weapons including surface to air missiles, AK-47s, explosives, and landmines. One of the key issues at the trial likely will focus on whether Bout had the capacity or intent to actually provide the weapons in the first place or were the wiretapped conversations with Bout plotting the deal nothing more than “just talk?”

In a strange twist of events, I have collected evidence in the past that could go a long way towards addressing Bout’s motive and capacity to supply the FARC.

In 1999, five separate shipments of 10,000 AKM Kalashnikov rifles were illegally airdropped to the FARC rebels over Colombia. From 2000-2003, I investigated the entire arms pipeline involved—spanning Florida, Jordan, Dubai, Hungary, Colombia, and Peru—and discovered that Viktor Bout’s transport and delivery system were used for the illicit drops. I shared my evidence on Bout’s companies with U.S. officials, and Dough Farah and Steve Braun raised the subject again in their seminal book on Bout, Merchant of Death.

Based on analysis of pre-trial motions, Bout’s prior FARC connection likely will not be raised by U.S. prosecutors. Judge Shira Scheindlin has sent clear signals that she will not let the evidence presented go far beyond the four corners of the indictment. It is not just that the exclusion of Bout’s past links to the FARC conveniently glosses over his connection to the top Peruvian spy chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, and an American-based arms broker, Sarkis Soghanalian, both of whom played central roles in the 1999 air drops and were U.S. intelligence assets at the time.

The real fallout is that the interests of the civilian victims—the ones who perished or suffered after Bout’s planes actually delivered weapons to the U.S. designated terrorist group in Colombia—are not represented. Nor are the hundreds of thousands of other innocents who’ve been killed or maimed because Bout has been free to operate illicitly from one hot spot to another all these years.

Given that U.S. prosecutors will build their case based on crimes captured in a sting operation that might never have taken place, and where no victims’ voices will be heard, I’m concerned for what will be left out of the picture. In a version of legal speed dating, with the trial taking place over just several weeks, information such as Bout’s complicity in fueling real wars and aiding and abetting war crimes will not likely be admitted.

Which is why I’ll be sitting in that courtroom pew. For the duration of the trial and jury deliberations, I’ll blog here, autopsying the high profile legal proceedings and telling more of the backstory, using highlights from the trial as the guide.

We still have a long way to go to deter illegal arms traffickers from fueling war and terrorism, but my hope is that my deeper coverage of this trial will shed light on current deficiencies in international and domestic laws and broaden public concern. I’ve spent most of my adult, professional career persevering against a formidable adversary, and yet, the battle for justice against Bout and his ilk has just begun.

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Kathi Lynn Austin

Kathi Lynn Austin

Kathi Lynn Austin is an internationally recognized expert on arms trafficking, peace and security, and human rights. She is founder and Executive Director of Conflict Awareness Project and for nearly 20 years has carried out in-depth field investigations into the illegal trade in weapons, illicit trafficking operations, illegal resource exploitation, transnational crime and terrorism. Ms. Austin has served in official capacity for the United Nations as a member of the Group of Experts on the DRC and Liberia. In 2012, Random House will release Kathi’s dramatic investigative field memoir, which focuses in part on her 15-year odyssey tracking Viktor Bout. Follow Kathi Austin on twitter: @kathilynnaustin
Kathi Lynn Austin

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