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.
On the opening day of the Viktor Bout trial, Judge Shira Scheinlin invited the unusually large, eighty person jury pool to be seated in the courtroom gallery. That meant that I and other members of the press and public were directed by a stern U.S. marshal to sit in the jury box. Because I had been first in line waiting for the trial to begin, I found myself seated as juror number one.
I directly faced dark-suited, mustached Viktor Bout, sitting to the left of his two trial lawyers, a study in contrasts–the elder, restrained Kenneth Kaplan beside the dapper lead attorney, Albert Dayan. It was a surreal moment, with both Viktor Bout and myself behind our composed courtroom masks. From my long experience tracking Bout’s activities, I can say we were both out of character. We both are more accustomed to a different kind of front line, under a different kind of glare–the equatorial sun of jungle war zones.
I never saw Viktor Bout look me in the eye while I sat distracted despite the comfortable chairs of the jury box, and he faced a possible life sentence on charges of conspiring to provide surface-to-air missiles for the use in killing Americans. What was going through my mind were the images from my years as an arms trafficking investigator–of particular people, even close friends, who had become victims of the many dirty wars I had witnessed, wars aided and abetted by Bout and other arms smugglers.
I first came across Viktor Bout’s name in the mid-1990’s when I was investigating violations of a U.N. arms embargo on Rwanda for a human rights organization. I interviewed a European pilot in the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire), and he described Bout to me as a less-known but entrepreneurial air cargo operator. At the time, Bout had contracted the plane’s of the pilot’s company to carry out a rebel supply mission in neighboring Angola despite a U.N. embargo on that country too.
It was a time when private arms traffickers started to play a pivotal role in African conflicts by illicitly supplying the demands of weapons of warlords, rebel groups, pariah governments, and criminal networks involved in attacks on civilian populations and the pillaging of natural resources. Most of these traffickers had started out as Cold War government operatives either for the former Soviet bloc or the West, or for Apartheid South Africa. Once the Berlin Wall fell and the Apartheid regime’s days were numbered, these agents were given access to the cache of airplanes, cargo companies, airstrips, along with the corrupt officials that formed the lifeblood of their operations.
As privatization and globalization took hold, so did they, unwilling to relinquish their former profits and adventure-fueled, macho lifestyles. Governments did little to rein in the activities of these free-wheeling and dealing arms entrepreneurs, preferring instead to call upon them covertly when needed for national security operations.
Bout’s shrewd business skills helped him rise to the top as he took over as many friendly skies as he could while pioneering the airdrop of arms supplies over unfriendly ones. To outdo his arms supply competitors, Bout amassed one of the biggest aviation fleets and began gobbling up local ’boutique’ arms delivery shops. Bout’s cornering of the arms trade market in parts of Africa, Afghanistan, and elsewhere is what earned him his arms trafficker poster boy status.
In his opening statement before the men and women jurors on day two of Viktor Bout’s trial, the confident, articulate Assistant U.S. Attorney, Brendan McGuire, alleged that Bout displayed a masterful knowledge of arms trafficking throughout the entire arms pipeline from the supply, to the paperwork, to the logistical operation involving airdrops of a multi-million dollar arsenal.
To help make his case, Mr. McGuire told jurors that, among other documentary evidence and testimony, he would introduce two key witnesses stand who oversaw the transport of military grade weaponry to an African conflict zone for Bout in the late 1990’s. Another former colleague of Bout’s in the African arms business, co-conspirator, Andrew Smulian, also will also testify as a result of a plea bargain agreement with the U.S.
McGuire’s précis of the case means that this will be the first time the public hears precise details of Viktor Bout’s gunrunning operations in Africa–straight from the mouths of those involved. Very likely we’ll hear unsavory arms trade details of the kind that NGOs, journalists and UN investigators have been uncovering for years, too often without getting heard.
But what still concerns me can be summed up in the words of the presiding judge, Shira Scheindlin, on the first day of trial. During jury selection, the judge instructed the potential pool, that when they hear about Bout’s past arms trafficking or arms transport activity in Africa, “this activity did not violate U.S. law…or the laws of any other countries.”
The questions and statements in jury selection were agreed upon by both parties, so this isn’t about the judge’s intent; rather, it’s about the parties’ agreement, based on their knowledge of what evidence will be presented, as to how jurors should be questioned to cull out prejudice or bias of any sort.
I highly doubt Bout’s arms deals in Africa were lawful, if anything they likely violated UN sanctions, which carry the weight of international law. But I need to first hear the descriptions of these activities from the witnesses before I further comment. It could be that the prosecution only intends to bring evidence of legal arms transportation by Bout in Africa, in order to prove that Bout has the supplies, technical know-how and expertise to transport arms, not that he violated the law on prior occasions.
In any case, we should not overlook possible complicity in the rape, torture, and murder at the hands of those using smuggled weapons in a war zone. Knowingly helping a warlord or illegal armed group or even government soldiers who harm or kill thousands of innocent civilians should not be considered perfectly legal. It should be an international crime at the highest order, a war crime.
Which brings me back to the sad thoughts that raced through my mind when I first came face to face with Viktor Bout in an austere federal courtroom.
I couldn’t forget the victims.
The views expressed in this post are solely those of Kathi Lynn Austin.