Weekly news digest Vesti Nedeli on state-owned propagandist channel Rossiya 1 has covered the exchange of Russian national Viktor Bout, who had been convicted in the US for conspiring to kill Americans, facilitating terrorism, and money laundering, for American basketball star Brittney Griner, whom Russia had jailed on drug smuggling charges. Introducing the story by Evgeny Reshetnev, host Dmitry Kiselyov set the tone:
“Bout spent twelve years in American prisons and two and a half years behind bars in Thailand before that, after being arrested at the United States’ request. The grounds for his arrest were false charges of arms trafficking and supporting terrorism.”
Reshetnev took his cue:
“Regarding the Russian as a particularly valuable hostage who could be used for pressure or as a bargaining chip, the US made Bout into a first-class villain. As usual, they took a page out of Hollywood's playbook, painting him as a merchant of death and an arms trade tycoon. Meanwhile, the influence of American cinema not only on laypeople but also on the country's justice system is apparently underestimated. <...>
The true story never mattered. Everything that happened from the very beginning looked like a script someone wrote, leaving lots of logical holes for the sake of an exciting plot. In 2008, US Drug Enforcement Administration agents, disguised as Colombian rebels, lured the Russian entrepreneur, who was officially in the air transportation business, to Bangkok, under the pretext of an arms deal. On March 6, 2008, Bout was detained in a Bangkok hotel by local police. An arrest warrant was issued by a Thai court on charges of helping Colombian terrorists, who had been impersonated by US agents.
'This is a lie and a bunch of nonsense. I’ve never been involved in arms trade or had any dealings with Al-Qaeda. Ask the Obama administration, ask Mrs. Clinton: what do they want me for? I don't know. I have no idea!' Bout kept repeating. Then Al-Qaeda turned into the Taliban, as suspicions of Bout’s ties to the latter began to circulate in the American media, apparently at the instigation of the CIA. The prosecution failed to prove anything of the sort in court.
'They accused me of delivering 200 T-90 tanks to the Taliban. How does one move 200 tanks? By making 200 flights to Afghanistan. Over which region? Where's the proof?' Bout exclaimed in indignation.
Judge Shira Scheindlin would later call her own sentence excessive and inappropriate – while admitting it was the best she could have done, with the prosecution demanding life imprisonment for Bout.”
When retiring in 2016, Judge Shira Scheindlin, indeed called her sentencing of Bout excessive and inappropriate in an interview with The New York Times. However, she also noted that she believed Bout to be guilty and that her criticism related to the norm of the law, which sets too harsh a minimal sentence for this crime, in her opinion: 25 years in prison. According to her, there is no doubt that Mr. Bout was an international arms dealer, but by the time of his arrest, he “was pretty well retired”. The judge thinks it is wrong to punish him the same way as a terrorist «who lives to blow up civilians in a supermarket.”
The prosecution did not accuse Bout of supplying weapons to either Al-Qaeda or the Taliban. The indictment concerned only his attempt to sell firearms to the Colombian leftist group FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), which had claimed responsibility for several terrorist attacks in the country. Those whom Bout thought to be FARC representatives were actually U.S. intelligence agents; the operation in 2008 was designed to lure Bout from Russia to Thailand, where he was arrested and later extradited to the United States.
This does not mean, however, that there had been no other episodes in Bout's biography with the sale of weapons to illegal organizations. He had fled to Russia to escape arrest on a warrant issued in 2002 by Belgium, which accused him of money laundering. Most of his deals never made it to trial.
A 2000 UN report on the civil war in Angola reads:
“Landing heavy cargo planes with illicit cargoes in war conditions and breaking international embargoes such as the one on Angola requires more than individual effort. It takes an internationally organized network of individuals, well funded, well connected, and well versed in brokering and logistics, with the ability to move illicit cargo around the world without raising the suspicions of the law or with the ability to deal with obstacles. One organization, headed, or at least to all appearances outwardly controlled by an Eastern European, Viktor Bout, is such an organization.”
Using the airlines he owned, Bout supplied weapons to both the Angolan government and the rebel group UNITA.
Another one of his clients was was the former president of Liberia, Charles Taylor, who supported the Revolutionary United Front group, which had unleashed a civil war in the neighboring country of Sierra Leone. The Special Court for Sierra Leone found Taylor guilty of war crimes and sentenced him to 50 years in prison. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission established in Sierra Leone after the war investigated Bout and recommended bringing him to justice for arms trafficking, illegal extraction of natural resources, aiding and abetting economic crimes, fraud, and tax evasion. But the indictment was made; even the Liberian warlords walked away scot-free.
Like in Angola, Bout supplied arms to several parties to the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire) in violation of the international embargo. While enjoying proximity to the Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, he also supplied weapons to his opponents, the Tutsi rebels.
Kenyan national Sanjivan Ruprah, a close associate of Bout’s who is serving a sentence in a Belgian prison, testified about Bout's ties to the Taliban. Initially, Bout sold weapons to government forces fighting against the Taliban and other insurgent groups, but in 1995, when the Taliban seized a plane he had chartered from the Kazan company Aerostan with a cargo of weapons for the Afghan army, he managed to find common ground with them during negotiations, and they also became his customers.
Citing reports from Afghan and US intelligence, the Permanent Representative of Afghanistan to the UN asserted that Bout, one of whose companies operated out of the emirate of Sharjah, regularly shipped cyanide and other poisonous substances, purchased from Germany, the Czech Republic, and Ukraine, from the UAE to Taliban-controlled Kandahar. According to the Permanent Representative, these supplies were not intended for the Taliban but for Osama bin Laden and his men. Belgian intelligence suggests that arms deals with the Taliban alone earned Bout about $50 million. Bout does not appear to have established direct links with Al-Qaeda, but the Taliban may have acted as an intermediary in his transactions. After information about these operations was leaked to the Belgian press, Bout hurriedly left the country, closing up shop there. Seven of Bout's partners, including Sanjivan Ruprah, were arrested by Belgian police.
In 2003, Alexander Litvinenko revealed Bout's ties to the FSB. He claimed to have seen Bout with his own eyes in the office of General Yevgeny Khokholkov, who had maintained contacts with the Solntsevskaya gang, an organized crime group based in Moscow. According to his information, Bout was also connected with Ukrainian criminal groups and Supreme Rada deputy Andrei Derkach, the son of Leonid Derkach, the SBU (Ukrainian intelligence service) chairman in 1998-2001 and President Leonid Kuchma's confidant.