Viktor Bout and arms-smuggling airplanes
Suspected Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout arrives at a Bangkok court last year.
October 31st, 2011
12:52 PM ET

Viktor Bout and arms-smuggling airplanes

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 

There were three chilling moments for me during the third week of Viktor Bout’s trial—and they all had something to do with airplanes.

Last Friday as I sat in the stately Manhattan courtroom and listened to the testimony of James Roberts, a pilot who worked for Viktor Bout in the late 1990’s, goose bumps suddenly crept up my arms. Roberts cavalierly explained how he and other aviators had ferried weapons and/or military personnel for their boss Bout throughout Central Africa.

Next Charles Mokoto, the owner of an African aircraft company, spoke with ease about flying high-level African military personnel into battle action during the same period.  When he left the witness stand, I shuddered and pulled my dark brown sweater tight across my chest to ward off the eerie chill as dark memories kicked in.

Like Roberts, Mokoto had journeyed, apparently without trepidation, to New York from Africa in order to describe Bout’s monopoly of air cargo operations during the two Congo wars. As recounted by the two men, Bout had set up his transport hub out of airfields inGoma,Congo (thenZaire) and an unnamed East African country.

That East African nation is Rwanda, but Judge Shira Scheindlin had barred the country’s name from being spoken during trial so as not to prejudice the jury against Bout given its common association with one of the twentieth century’s most horrific genocides.

Since I had investigated firsthand Bout’s gunrunning operations in and out of Central African combat zones, it wasn’t the information that had me visibly shaken. I knew these details by heart. Rather, it was the lack of remorse and fear of reprisal both witnesses displayed as they described how they had once enabled warfare and gross human rights abuses.

The other moment that left me icy was when Bout’s co-conspirator Andrew Smulian related his previous joint ventures with Bout supplying rebel forces in Angola by air. Smulian did not flinch even though these logistical operations were in violation of UN sanctions at the time.

Genocide and conflict in Rwanda,Congo and Angola cost millions of lives and will continue to traumatize survivors for years to come. Yet, during the trial such flesh and blood reality has been glossed over as merely collateral. I wonder how many others in the courtroom feel the weight of this tragedy.

Other than one Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent and two of the DEA’s confidential sources, the aviation experts mentioned above are the only other witnesses that theU.S.prosecution has called in this high-profile trial.

This isn’t surprising. Even Bout’s defense lawyer, Albert Dayan, hasn’t shied from acknowledging that Bout commanded one of the large arms transport fleet in the post-Cold War era until he was sanctioned by the United Nations in March 2004.

Pilots and aviation companies are the lifeline for illegal arms pipelines and often are wars’ repeat offenders—continuing to aid and abet genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes with impunity. These enablers come in all stripes and from all nationalities but often shares common characteristics: a pilot license and/or plane, a daredevil spirit, and callousness towards humanity in order to make a buck.

While such enablers may face international opprobrium, they have operated unscathed for years because few deterrents exist and even less enforcement efforts target their complicity. Aviators are not alone in all this of course. Other types of intermediaries facilitate illicit arms deals and are equally unregulated.

In common parlance, arms middlemen are called “brokers” and include financiers, import/export agents, negotiators, and transport operators used to arrange one or more aspect of an arms deal between the supplier and client. Typically, these middlemen are not the original owners of the weapons and reside neither in the supplier country nor the place where the arms are received.

Since arms brokers play a legitimate role on behalf of lawful manufacturers and governments, an outright ban is not called for. But a tight regulatory regime at both the international and national level is needed to ensure brokers engage only in authorized sales that conform to international law and to provide law enforcement with the necessary tools to pursue offenders.

To date, far less than half of the world’s governments have arms brokering controls in place for small arms and light weapons like those Bout has trafficked, and even these vary tremendously in scope and penalties.

To its credit, theU.S.has one of the most comprehensive arms brokering laws on the books, which first took effect during the Clinton Administration. Passed by the U.S. Congress in 1996 as an amendment to the Arms Export Control Act (AECA), this legislation was designed to close the loophole on unscrupulous off-shore arms trafficking as in the case of Bout and his companies.

The law requires all citizens as well as foreign nationals residing or conducting business in theU.S.to register and obtain licenses for any arms deals that they transact on or off American soil. Moreover, the law specifically includes air transport in the definition of brokering. (A national security exemption is in place forU.S.government transactions).

But while grandstanding this powerful legislation abroad, the U.S. has fumbled in the past on the global stage. There is a chance for thisU.S. to remedy this in July 2012 during the forthcoming UN negotiations for an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). To do so, theU.S. will have to take a strong lead in bringing about a global regulatory framework on arms brokering as the most effective means to deter small arms from getting into the wrong hands, an initiative it undercut ten years ago at a similar U.N. Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons.

I’ll write about the potential of the ATT in a future blog, but for now, let’s get back to the airplanes.

Viktor Bout’s defense has been built around the notion that he was conning the undercover DEA operatives, posing as the FARC, about a potential arms deal only because he wanted to sell them a couple of airplanes - ones in his fleet that Bout still had parked in the Congo despite the fact these assets should have been frozen under the current UN sanctions regime.

TheU.S.called the aviation witnesses in an effort to provide additional corroboration that Bout had the intent and ability to supply arms as in the past. The prosecution has argued that the airplanes were just part and parcel of the entire package deal, as it would typically be for multi-capacity arms dealers like Bout.

On the surface, the positions of the prosecution and defense may appear to be different. But on closer examination, each point to the same conclusion when it comes to the problematic way arms trafficking networks conduct their murky business by air.

In the wrong hands, as Bout exemplifies, aviation can contribute to a diabolical ecosystem destroying many lives when weapons are illicitly delivered. When it comes to tightening arms brokering controls in the future, this sector must be included.

After their testimony, the pilots walked away free as though warmly washing their hands of past misdeeds. But as I sat on the hard bench and reflected on the devastation and its aftermath, the chills stayed with me.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Kathi Austin.

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Topics: Arms Trafficking

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soundoff (23 Responses)
  1. Onesmallvoice

    I see that Victor Bout is about to have his day in court. What I want to see is when are Barack Obama, David Cameron and Nickolas Sarkozy going to have theirs? These guys are a shining example of just how fair life is not!!!

    October 31, 2011 at 3:54 pm | Reply
    • Whyfair

      @ Onesmallvoice, Do you really expect Life to be fair ?
      You are from what planet ? This is Earth.

      November 3, 2011 at 8:00 am | Reply
  2. Keila

    Kathi, thank you for writing this blog !

    October 31, 2011 at 5:17 pm | Reply
  3. j. von hettlingen

    I suppose the airplanes were for Victor Bout as banal as rental cars or taxis.

    October 31, 2011 at 6:24 pm | Reply
  4. carole jahme

    The world is a bit safer tonight, thanks to Kathi Austin and all those who brought Viktor Bout to trial and successfully convicted this ruthless dangerous man. Good work.

    November 2, 2011 at 7:03 pm | Reply
  5. CJ Hinke

    I followed the arrest of Viktor Bout closely in Thailand. Regardless of his arms “crimes” (no different than the common arms practices of major govts, particularly the USA, including selling weapons to both sides), he was arrested here illegally by a foreign govt on sovereign soil. So what does the DEA, for instance, have to do with arms? Bout was charged by the US for a deal which was not a crime in Thailand. No matter what you think of the man, our govts are doing the same, on vast scale. Ms. Austin points out that US govt arms sales are protected on grounds of “national security”—the money’s still dirty and people still die. If we are ruled by law, Viktor Bout should never have been arrested.

    November 3, 2011 at 5:13 am | Reply
  6. Bob Walton

    In a Russian Foreign Ministry statement published on the ministry’s Web site, Aleksandr K. Lukashevich, a spokesman, said the Russian government would seek to have Mr. Bout returned home, but did not indicate how it would do so.

    Ask yourself, "have there been prisoner swaps between Moscow and the West, our "innocents" for their convicted?" Of course jay-walking can be a very serious offense but the Ruskies have never been known to grab a tourist, have they?

    November 4, 2011 at 8:52 am | Reply

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