Prominent Russians: Viktor Bout
Military man turned businessman
Viktor Bout was born in Dushanbe, the capital of the Tajik Soviet Republic (now Tajikistan) to Russian parents. He graduated from the Military Institute of Foreign Languages in Moscow and joined the elite 339th regiment of the Soviet Union air force as a translator. His regiment was based out of Vitebsk, Belarus and operated in Angola as part of a UN contingent until 1991. When the regiment was disbanded after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Bout moved to South Africa.
Having reached the rank of First Lieutenant in the Air Force, Bout left his military career behind him and began to put his skills to use in business. His mastery of languages, knowledge of Africa and experience with aircraft gave him a good grounding for a career in the aviation industry.
He started an air transport business, which quickly ballooned into a global airline network. It was the perfect timing for such a venture: in the early 1990s former Soviet Union aircraft could be bought quite cheaply as demand plummeted. It is thought that he began his empire with the purchase of a single An-12 ('Antonov') turboprop transport aircraft.
The merchant of death
As Bout himself has described in interviews, his first regular trades were in the lucrative African flower industry. He built a storage facility in South Africa and transported flowers and food from there to Nigeria.
But as his business grew, accusations of weapons dealing began to surface. An investigation into his activities conducted by Human Rights Watch in 2001 accused him of selling arms to Liberia.
As various governments accused him of further arms deals Viktor Bout was transformed from an unknown Russian businessman into “The Merchant of Death,” the nom de guerre attached to him by former British Foreign Office minister Peter Hain. “The UN has exposed Bout as the center of a spider's web of shady arms dealers, diamond brokers and other operatives, sustaining the wars,” said Peter Hain, MP in 2001.
He was put on the United Nations travel ban list as he was suspected of selling weapons to the Liberian president, once a prominent African warlord, Charles Taylor. The British intelligence service MI6 accused him of having worked with the Taleban since 1996, and of providing them with up to $US 30 million worth of arms, including chemical weapons. According to MI6, his partnership with the Taleban continued right up to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
In 2002, Belgium issued an arrest warrant for Viktor Bout, which forced him to flee to his native Russia, where the constitution protected him from extradition to a foreign country for trial.
While charges against Bout mounted abroad, he lived in Moscow and continued to protest his innocence. In a radio interview with Echo Moskvy he laughed at the “ridiculous situation” and said that, far from the numerous aliases and false documents that the UN accused him of possessing, he had “never hid anything from anyone, and never been a citizen of any country other than the Russian Federation.”
In the same interview in 2002 he said “As far the accusations of having dealt with Osama Bin Laden are concerned, it sounds more like a Hollywood action movie!” His statement was prophetic – the 2005 film Lord of War, in which Nicholas Cage plays a Ukrainian arms dealer, is thought to have been partly inspired by Bout's alleged exploits.
Extradition to the U.S.
Among the charges leveled against Bout are the illegal selling of helicopters, tanks and all manner of weapons to terrorists and warring factions in an array of countries including Angola, DR Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Rwanda, Afghanistan and Colombia. According to the UN, his main sources are the former communist countries Ukraine, Bulgaria and Moldova, but he has purchased from many others in addition. He was also acused of of assisting terrorism and conspiring to kill Americans.
Bout has denied all accusations of arms dealing, and claims he is simply a successful Russian businessman.
On March 6, 2008 Viktor Bout was arrested in Bangkok in a months-long sting operation organised by American and Thai police after years of being on Interpol´s wanted list. He was detained on U.S. terrorism charges in connection with conspiracy to supply weapons to FARC rebels in Columbia.
The US government requested that he be extradited to stand trial in the United States, something Moscow has strongly opposed, claiming he was an honest businessman. After a Thai court ruled against extradition in 2009, the decision was reversed by the Appeals Court a year later.
On November 16, 2010 Bout landed in the U.S. to stand trial. Neither Russian authorities, nor Bout´s wife were informed of the operation, and have been displeased by the move on the part of the U.S. claiming it was politically motivated.
In early April 2012 a US judge has sentenced Russian businessman Viktor Bout to 25 years behind bars - the mandatory minimum for such charges. In addition to his prison term, Judge Scheindlin sentenced Bout to five years of supervised release. She also ordered him to forfeit US $15 million and immediately pay a US $400 special assessment fee.
The prosecutors had been calling for a life sentence for Bout. However, the judge said there was no proof he had been looking to deal with terrorist groups or kill Americans. She also said Bout had not been an active arms dealer since 2003.