NEW YORK/MOSCOW (Reuters) - Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer caught in an undercover sting by U.S. agents posing as Colombian guerrillas, has been sentenced to 25 years in jail by a judge in New York, prompting charges of political bias from Russia.
Bout, the subject of a book titled “Merchant of Death”, asserted his innocence during the sentencing on Thursday, telling the judge through a Russian interpreter: “I never intended to kill anyone. I never intended to sell arms to anyone. God knows this truth.”
“These people know this truth,” he said, pointing at federal agents sitting in the front row. “They will live with this truth ... God forgive you. You will answer to him, not to me.”
Bout, who Amnesty International says has been involved in embargo-busting arms deals to human rights abusers in Angola, Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo, was arrested in Bangkok in 2008 after a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) sting operation and later extradited to New York to face trial.
He was convicted by a Manhattan federal court jury last fall after a three-week trial that centered on charges he agreed to sell arms to people he thought were militants intent on attacking American soldiers in Colombia.
Russia said the “groundless and biased” ruling was politically motivated. The Foreign Ministry said Russia would continue to seek Bout’s return to his country.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking to reporters in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana, said the court had made its ruling under an “unprecedented pressure” from the U.S. authorities.
He said he would discuss Bout’s sentence with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The sentencing comes at an uncertain time for Russian-U.S. ties, with Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin next month and President Barack Obama facing a re-election battle, but analysts said it was unlikely to sour ties significantly.
“There may be additional declarations (from Russia), but I absolutely do not think this will affect relations,” said Maria Lipman, an expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “This is not a new case and ... the result of the trial was predictable.”
Despite a swell of anti-American rhetoric during Putin’s presidential campaign, Lipman said, Russia wants constructive relations with the United States and Bout’s sentencing will not change that.
Bout’s capture came less than a year after the publication of “Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible”, written by investigative journalists Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun. The 2007 book chronicled Bout’s life as an arms dealer and how he evaded capture for years.
He was convicted on two counts of conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals and officers of the United States and one count each of conspiracy to sell anti-aircraft missiles and providing material support to a terrorist organization.
His attorneys have said they would appeal.
Defense attorney Albert Dayan argued on Thursday that the government’s case was based entirely on Bout’s promises, rather than his actions, and therefore had “built-in reasonable doubt”.
U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin noted that federal sentencing guidelines called for a life sentence, due in part to Bout’s conviction for a crime of terrorism, but the fact his conduct was the result of a sting was a mitigating factor, despite his long history of arms dealing.
“But for the approach made in this determined sting operation, it is unclear that Mr. Bout would have committed the charged crimes,” she said.
U.S. informants posed as arms buyers from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, and met Bout in Thailand to buy an arsenal of military weaponry, which prosecutors said he agreed to provide.
Two DEA informants who posed as FARC leaders testified for the prosecution at Bout’s trial. A former Bout business associate, Andrew Smulian, also testified for the government after pleading guilty to participating in the FARC deal.
According to prosecutors, Bout met the supposed FARC representatives in a Bangkok hotel and agreed to sell the 100 advanced man-portable surface-to-air missiles or the approximately 5,000 AK-47 assault rifles that were discussed.
Bout was charged only in connection with the suspected arms deal, but U.S. authorities have said he has been involved in trafficking arms since the 1990s to dictators and conflict zones in Africa, South America and the Middle East.
The Russian statement said the charges against Bout “were built exclusively on the ‘criminal intent’ ascribed to him” and called him the victim of an “absolutely unacceptable ... smear campaign”.
Prosecutors said the informants told Bout the weapons would be used to attack U.S. pilots helping the Colombian government. At the meeting in Bangkok, Bout responded, “We have the same enemy.”
Washington classifies FARC, a Marxist-inspired guerrilla army, as a terrorist organization and says it is deeply involved in the cocaine trade.
Bout’s arrest and trial have been an irritant in ties between the United States and Russia, which bristles at claims of political motives in cases such as that of jailed ex-tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and accuses Washington of double standards.
“The whole situation with Viktor Bout confirms the presence of serious problems of selectivity and bias in the American court system,” Russian Foreign Ministry human rights representative Konstantin Dolgov said.
Bout had lived untroubled in Russia, frustrating U.S. officials seeking his prosecution, until he was lured to Bangkok.
Russia fought unsuccessfully for his repatriation from Thailand after his arrest, and the Foreign Ministry vowed on Friday to keep trying to bring him home. “This issue will doubtless be among our priorities in the Russian-American agenda,” it said.
Reporting by Joseph Ax; Additional reporting by Steve Gutterman in Moscow; Writing by Paul Thomasch; Editing by Dan Burns and Will Waterman