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Too much chicken, overcooked fries, and no strawberries: Viktor Bout on “inhumane” conditions in US prison

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“When I was locked up in Thailand, they brought me food to order.”

Viktor Bout, convicted in the US of arms trafficking and supporting terrorism, gave an interview to former Taganskaya crime syndicate member Maria Butina after returning to Russia as a result of a 1-for-1 prisoner exchange for WNBA player Brittney Griner. Butina had also previously served a sentence in a US prison on charges of acting as an unregistered Russian foreign agent within the United States.

But told Butina, whom he referred to in all his interviews as Marina, of the “inhumane conditions” he was subjected to while incarcerated in an American prison. The hardest part, he said, was solitary confinement and the rare calls (once a month) to his family. Another major inconvenience was the food, according to Bout, who said that prisoners ate chicken and hamburgers with overcooked fries. That said, in the Thai prison, food was brought as desired to order, Bout says.

“It's right out of the Nazi playbook, it's all thought out, there's no chance or coincidence [to any of it]. The menu is standard, it doesn't change. On Wednesday they serve hamburgers with heavily overcooked fries, on Thursdays you get a piece of chicken [huge and impossible to eat, Butina clarifies], chicken legs that smell so bad you just want to…I won't say that on air. And when I talked to the people in charge of these services, they told me – “What don't you like?” I said, “I'm sorry, would you eat that yourself?” It's inedible, it's not human. I did two years in a Thai prison – it was horrible, dirty, and boring, but at least they gave you any food you could order, they had no problem with that. If I wanted something, they asked – “What do you want?” and [in the US] it was just... Marina, can you imagine when you haven't had garlic, dill, parsley, or strawberries in 10 years? I mean, it all builds up. When I was in solitary, at some point I lost interest in food. I got terribly thin. With that attitude, it went away on its own, and I started forcing myself to eat.”

Earlier, former political prisoner Ivan Astashin detailed his experience with food in the Russian prison system. According to Astashin, convicts at penal colony No. 15 (IK-15) in the Norilsk suburb of Oganer got their food in mayonnaise buckets and “strange sacks.”

Restrictions on communication with relatives in Russian prisons is also commonplace. For example, opposition leader Alexei Navalny receives no letters from his wife Yulia and is refused phone calls. He is only allowed a phone call for a few minutes during the visit of his lawyer, who is not allowed to see his client for five hours beforehand. This forces Navalny to choose between talking to his lawyer or talking to his wife.

“Just a delivery guy, like a cab driver.”

Butina also asked him about the charges brought by US authorities. She chose to answer her own question early in the interview, saying that Bout “was put in US custody without trial just for being Russian.” For his part, Bout said the charges were unfair because as he was “just a delivery guy, like a cab driver.”

“After all, nothing happened. I understand if I was really involved in any of these things. But even the judge said: I'm sorry, I didn't see anything at this trial that Viktor is accused of, he's an ordinary businessman, and many businessmen do the same thing. He didn't do anything illegal, but since our conspiracy laws won't let me. There was a logistics company that transported cargo legally [Bout answers affirmatively to Butina's question]. How else [was it supposed to work], you fly out of an international airport from Europe where there are police, customs services, and you fly into an African airport, and the government services get the cargo that was sent to them. It's like we're going to start catching all the cab drivers now and telling them “you know, you just took a drug trafficker for a ride.”
Marina, everything that happened to me is happening to our country right now. I was probably that first [test subject], like in a laboratory. An experiment on one particular person. I've been under sanctions since 2000 – they put everything on me, banned transfers, companies. I’ve been under sanctions for the last 22 years. The war that they started with me and my family, they slowly, like a rubber band, began to pull over the whole country, on all Russian people since 2014.”

Who is Viktor Bout and why was he tried in the US?

“Ordinary businessman” Viktor Bout, also known as the “lord of war” and “merchant of death,” got into arms trafficking in the early 1990s in the United Arab Emirates – among other things, he was involved in the delivery of Russian fighter jets to Malaysia. Later, he began trafficking weapons to countries with international embargoes on arms imports, with media reporting that Bout had supplied weapons to the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Bout's wife stated that “the Taliban have historically been Russia's enemy,” adding that suspecting her husband of trading with terrorists is “humiliating.” Bout, she said, had visited Afghanistan on a diplomatic mission as part of a Russian delegation.

Bout was detained in Bangkok in 2008 on a warrant issued by a local court at the request of the United States, and was accused of illegally supplying weapons to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). He was extradited to the United States in 2010. In April 2012, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison along with a $15 million fine.

In addition to the US, Bout has been prosecuted for arms trafficking by France, Belgium and even Sierra Leone, and has been under UN sanctions for illegal arms trading since 2001. However, this did not affect Bout for some time, as the “ordinary businessman” had five passports in different names. The Romanian, Danish and Dutch police cooperated with the US in Bout's arrest on charges of selling arms to FARC. The global media, unlike the Russian media, describe Bout as a “merchant of death” who foments bloody conflicts. French journalist Jean-Michel Vernochet argues that the wars in Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Liberia, the DRC, Angola and Sudan would not have reached such a scale if Viktor Bout had not supplied the warring parties with weapons.

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