Viktor Bout, also known as the “Merchant of Death,” could spend the rest of his life in prison over charges relating to his alleged arms trafficking. For 15 years, investigator Kathi Lynn Austin was on his trail and her work helped bring Bout to justice. From her front-row seat in U.S. Federal Court in New York, Austin will tell 100Reporters a tale of international intrigue and its lethal consequences.
I’ve been first in line every morning since Tuesday, October 11, when the trial of the high-profile international arms trafficker, Viktor Bout, began in Manhattan Federal Court. The former Soviet military officer has been charged with four counts of conspiracy, including material support to a foreign terrorist organization and providing 100 surface-to- air missiles intended to kill U.S. citizens.
At the start of the trial, Judge Shira Scheindlin invited a large jury pool to be seated in the courtroom gallery. A stern U.S. Field Marshal conveyed to those of us from the public and press corps that the courtroom was too packed to allow us to enter. The press objected and sent a message to the judge: media coverage was vital to ensure the transparency of the trial. She agreed to let some of us occupy the jury box.
That is how I came to sit in the first juror’s seat, facing a notorious adversary for the first time, a man I had spent nearly two decades tracking for human rights organizations and as a UN arms trafficking investigator.
If you haven’t heard his name before, you are certain to know of the wars he has fueled with his lethal supplies — in countries such as Rwanda, Congo, Liberia, Colombia, and Afghanistan.
Undoubtedly, Viktor Bout’s trial marks a milestone in the international effort to bring uncontrolled illegal arms traffickers to justice. It also feels like a personal victory having spent years building dossiers against gunrunners such as Bout. These war profiteers have amassed fortunes arming the perpetrators of mass violence in humanitarian tragedies that have been costly beyond measure, in both human and moral terms — $6bn worth of Bout’s assets were frozen by UN sanctions committees.
Still, sitting in the jury box, I couldn’t help but quietly ask: why has it taken so long?
For nearly two decades, Bout built a global weapons empire with a vast fleet of old Soviet aircraft, arming some of the world’s most unscrupulous actors in Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere. With his slew of readily-available aliases and forged identification, Viktor Bout’s “wherever, whenever” Federal Express type of gunrunning has been so prolific that it has earned him the nicknames “sanctions-buster” and “Merchant of Death.”
Savvy smugglers such as Bout know how to minimize the evidence and paper trail needed to hold them criminally liable — creating shell companies, falsifying aircraft licenses, filing bogus flight plans — and they often move operations when they are detected or politically fall from grace.
But despite the mounting role of globe-trotting arms traffickers threatening international peace and security, violating UN sanctions, and enabling carnage and atrocities from Syria to Libya to Afghanistan, few countries in the world actually have legislation to regulate these dealers, and those vary considerably in degree, scope and penalty.
In part because of this legal black hole, Viktor Bout was able to sell just about every kind of small arm and light weapon imaginable with little red tape, from machine guns to grenades to ammunition. Over the course of the New York trial, we’ll likely hear ear-popping details of just how Bout’s black market deals typically go down.
The Assistant U.S. Attorney Brendan McGuire has informed the jury they will hear testimony and evidence of Bout’s arms trafficking activities to African conflict zones in the late 1990s.
I’d wager a bet that those arms deals also breached certain domestic or international laws, even though no legal action was taken at the time.
Sadly, not until a link between the war on terror and narco-trafficking was established did the U.S. expend the required resources to bring Bout to justice by mounting a sting operation carried out by undercover agents of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).
Which means that the U.S. and other governments around the world have failed abysmally to consider the plight of civilians in far off conflict zones, UN sanctions enforcement, or upholding international law as vital enough to its own interests to address the horrific problem of unchecked arms traffickers.
One week into the trial, I want to withhold personal judgment until I hear more. For the remainder of the trial, I’ll sit in the regularly assigned seats of the courtroom gallery, blogging my analysis of the legal proceedings from the perspective of an arms trafficking investigator that has tracked Viktor Bout’s lethal activities most of her professional career.
But for starters, this trial is not only about holding the most infamous modern-day gunrunner accountable.
It also is as much an indictment of feeble national laws, the absence of international controls, and the slow pace of law enforcement to target and disrupt transnational trafficking networks that have allowed war entrepreneurs like Bout to flourish in one hot spot after another ever since the end of the Cold War.
Kathi Lynn Austin is founder and executive director of the Conflict Awareness Project. Follow her on Twitter: www.twitter.com/kathilynnaustin