The trial of the alleged "Merchant of Death"
Viktor Bout. (Getty Images)
October 14th, 2011
05:00 PM ET

The trial of the alleged "Merchant of Death"

Editor’s Note:  Kathi Lynn Austin, a former Arms Trafficking Expert for the United Nations, is the Executive Director of the Conflict Awareness Project  (CAP). Her forthcoming memoir, The Unofficial Spy, is due out in 2012. For more from Kathi Austin, follow her on Twitter.

By Kathi Austin - Special to CNN

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 article are solely those of Kathi Austin.

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Topics: Arms Trafficking • Law

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soundoff (15 Responses)
  1. j. von hettlingen

    The author said, she could forget the victims. Victor Bolt? During his solitary confinement, he has plenty of time to do some soul-searching. Of a luxurious life-style he dreamt and he made it. Now he will be behind bars for the rest of his life.

    October 14, 2011 at 6:48 pm | Reply
  2. John

    How ludicrous! This guy goes to trial where he doesn't have a Chinaman's chance of being acquitted while the military bozoes in Washington are making money by the gobs by selling arms and continue to profit off these obscene wars!!! Something is terribly wrong here!

    October 14, 2011 at 7:50 pm | Reply
  3. Rz

    One can only hope that all other businessmen everywhere of the same sort might face a similar fate.

    October 14, 2011 at 9:51 pm | Reply
  4. Muin

    Jackie shrof's twin brother

    October 15, 2011 at 2:13 pm | Reply
  5. mike kane

    According to the Nicolas Cage movie the top 5 arms dealers in the world are the members of the UN Security Council – read: USA tops the list. Hypocrisy rides again! He simply made someone in the US govt an enemy and they pulled the rug. Any investigation into the $$$$ that was paid to US govt/military/politicos by this guy? hmmmm...

    It is all such a crock...

    October 17, 2011 at 6:06 am | Reply
  6. mike kane


    October 17, 2011 at 6:22 am | Reply
  7. mike kane

    some posts get posted...others don't..but they are "not pre-screened"...right....

    October 17, 2011 at 6:23 am | Reply
  8. Whothewhatthe

    Where does he get these weapons from? I'm sure he doesn't manufacture them so it means countries which allow the sale to people like him are as guilty.

    October 17, 2011 at 7:01 am | Reply
  9. Keila

    Hoping that everyone is sharing this site with their friends and asking them to pass on the information about the Viktor Bout trial and CAP

    October 20, 2011 at 1:18 pm | Reply
  10. Keila

    Have been sending this info to all of my friends so that they too can follow this important trial

    October 20, 2011 at 4:07 pm | Reply
  11. carole jahme

    An extraordinary account of this landmark trial from Austin. This report paints a compelling picture of a man facing up to himslef. Whether the full truth will prevail remains to be seen. Great that CNN got the right person on board to cover this story in depth it requires. Only Austin knows the history and intricasies and she is the only one expereinced enough to articulate the wider implications of this trial. I'd really like to see more journalism from her in the future.

    October 21, 2011 at 3:51 pm | Reply
  12. Occupado

    This guy is still around? I remember seeing a 60 Minutes story on him back in the 1990s.


    October 27, 2011 at 10:17 am | Reply
  13. CJ Hinke

    Ms. Austin sounds more like a Yanqui vigilante, a la machine gun preacher, rather than an objective commentator. Viktor Bout was arrested illegally in Thailand, victim of a DEA sting, then extradited based on the illegal arrest. The judge himself stated Bout had broken no laws in the USA or elsewhere. If Ms. Austin knows more, show us the proof demanded by law. Govts are the real lords of war and merchants of death.

    November 3, 2011 at 6:50 am | Reply

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