Viktor Bout: Russian arms dealer touted for US prisoner swap

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Victor Bout, a former Soviet military officer, is currently serving a 25-year prison sentence in the United States for conspiracy to kill Americans, acquire and export anti-aircraft missiles, and provide material support to a terrorist organization. Bout has maintained that he is innocent.
The Kremlin has long called for Bout’s release, calling his 2012 conviction “baseless and biased”.

On the same day, Griner testified in a Russian court in his ongoing drug trafficking trial after his February arrest at a Moscow airport. Whelan was arrested for alleged espionage in 2018 and sentenced to 16 years in prison in a trial that US officials have called unfair.

Their families have urged the White House to secure their release, including via a prisoner exchange if necessary. Now at the center of that bid is Bout, a man who has evaded international arrest warrants and asset freezes for years.

The Russian businessman, who speaks six languages, was arrested in a 2008 sting operation by US drug enforcement agents in Thailand posing as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known under the acronym FARC. He was finally extradited to the United States in 2010 after a lengthy legal process.
“Viktor Bout has been enemy number one in the international arms trade for many years, arming some of the world’s most violent conflicts,” said Preet Bharara, the US attorney in Manhattan when Bout was sentenced in New York in 2012.

“He was ultimately brought to justice in a US court for agreeing to supply an impressive array of military-grade weapons to a declared terrorist organization committed to killing Americans.”

The trial focused on Bout’s role in supplying weapons to the FARC, a guerrilla group that led an insurgency in Colombia until 2016. The United States said the weapons were intended to kill American citizens .

But Bout’s history in the arms business extended much further. He is accused of having assembled a fleet of cargo planes to transport military-grade weapons to conflict zones around the world since the 1990s, fueling bloody conflicts from Liberia to Sierra Leone and Afghanistan. Allegations of trafficking activities in Liberia prompted US authorities to freeze his US assets in 2004 and blocked all US transactions.

Bout has repeatedly maintained that he operates legitimate businesses and acts as a mere logistics service provider. He is believed to be in his 50s, with his age disputed due to different passports and documents.

“His beginnings are a mystery,” Douglas Farah, senior fellow at the International Center for Assessment and Strategy and co-author of a book on Bout, told CNN in 2010.
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Farah told Mother Jones magazine in 2007 that according to his multiple passports, Bout was born in 1967 in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, the son of an accountant and an auto mechanic. He said Bout graduated from the Military Institute of Foreign Languages, a well-known feeder school for Russian military intelligence.

“It was a Soviet officer, most likely a lieutenant, who simply saw the opportunities presented by three factors that accompanied the collapse of the USSR and the state sponsorship that entailed: abandoned planes on the runways from Moscow to kyiv, no longer able to fly due to lack of money for fuel or maintenance; huge stockpiles of surplus weapons that were guarded by guards suddenly receiving little or no pay; and the demand growing demand for these weapons from traditional Soviet customers and emerging armed groups from Africa to the Philippines,” Farah told the magazine.

Bout said he worked as a military officer in Mozambique. Others said it was actually Angola, where Russia had a large military presence at the time, Farah told CNN. He first rose to prominence when the United Nations began investigating him in the early 1990s and the United States began to get involved.

Bout – who reportedly used names such as “Victor Anatoliyevich Bout”, “Victor But”, “Viktor Butt”, “Viktor Bulakin”, and “Vadim Markovich Aminov” – was said to be the inspiration for the arms dealer character played by Nicolas Cage in the 2005 film “Lord of War”.

In 2002, CNN’s Jill Dougherty met Bout in Moscow. She asked him about the allegations against him – did he sell weapons to the Taliban? To Al-Qaeda? Did he supply rebels in Africa and was he paid in blood diamonds? — and he denied every claim.

“It’s a false allegation and it’s a lie,” he said. “I’ve never touched diamonds in my life and I’m not a diamond dealer and I don’t want this business.”

“I’m not scared,” he told Dougherty. “I haven’t done anything in my life that I should be afraid of.”

Earlier reporting by Ashley Hayes and CNN staff.

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