Notorious arms smuggler Viktor Bout, known as the "Merchant of Death," has been sentenced to 25 years in prison for conspiracy to commit terrorism. Our guest, former United Nations arms trafficking investigator Kathi Lynn Austin, says the case allowed American companies to avoid exposure of their collusion with with the U.S. government and private companies linked to Dick Cheney during the Iraq war, even after United Nations sanctions against him in 2004. Authorities say Viktor Bout was involved in trafficking arms to dictators and stoking conflicts in Africa, South America and the Middle East. He has also been accused of furnishing weapons to al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and achieved particular notoriety for selling arms in Rwanda in 1998, just four years after the Rwandan genocide. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: One of the world’s most notorious arms smugglers has been sentenced to 25 years in prison by a New York federal court judge—not for smuggling, but for conspiracy and terrorism charges. Viktor Bout is known as the "Merchant of Death" for running what United Nations and U.S. officials say was an international arms trafficking network. Yesterday, a jury unanimously found the 45-year-old former Soviet Air Force officer guilty of agreeing to sell weapons to U.S. informants posing as Colombian rebels plotting to kill Americans. U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin said she gave Bout the minimum sentence, because there was no evidence he would have been charged with seeking to harm Americans if he had not been approached by informants in a sting operation that led to his capture.
Bout’s lawyer, Albert Dayan, argued Bout was a legitimate businessman who had only mentioned that he could acquire arms in order to sell cargo planes to his clients. He addressed the press shortly after Bout’s sentence was announced.
ALBERT DAYAN: So this is not the end, that he still has a chance, and we have a chance to—again, we can appeal to this judge that the verdict was rendered against the weight of the evidence, and that we could also proceed to the United States Court of Appeals.
AMY GOODMAN: Authorities say Viktor Bout was involved in trafficking arms to dictators and stoking conflicts in Africa, South America and the Middle East. Bout has also been accused of furnishing weapons to al-Qaeda and Taliban. He achieved particular notoriety for selling arms in Rwanda in 1998, just four years after the Rwandan genocide.
Viktor Bout was first arrested by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in March 2008 in Bangkok, Thailand, after getting ensnared in a foreign sting operation run by the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Earlier this week, in a pre-sentencing telephone interview with Voice of Russia, Bout maintained his innocence, saying all arms suppliers in the U.S. would be in prison, too, if the same standards were applied across the board.
VIKTOR BOUT: I am innocent. I don’t commit any crime. There is no crime to sit and talk. If you’re going to apply the same standards to me, then you’re going to, you know, jail all those arms dealers in America who are selling the arms and ending up killing Americans. They are involved even more than me.
AMY GOODMAN: That was the voice of Viktor Bout, speaking to Voice of Russia from prison.
For more, we’re joined now by a former U.N. arms trafficking investigator who has tracked Bout for more than a decade, Kathi Lynn Austin, executive director of the Conflict Awareness Project, a group dedicated to tracking global weapons traffickers and exposing the illicit world of war profiteering.
Kathi Lynn Austin, welcome to Democracy Now! Please explain what Viktor Bout was convicted of, sentenced for, and what he wasn’t convicted of.
KATHI LYNN AUSTIN: Well, last November, a jury convicted Viktor Bout of four counts of conspiracy to commit terrorism. It was actually—the verdict was returned in what is the equivalent of less than a day. The prosecutors knew that bringing forward a terrorism case in a New York jurisdiction around the anniversary of 9/11 would probably be highly likely to result in a conviction. What happened yesterday was the judge who presided over the case, Judge Scheindlin, basically gave Viktor Bout the minimum sentence of 25 years. The U.S. prosecution was calling for a life sentence.
I think the U.S. prosecution made a very good case as to why Viktor Bout should be granted a life sentence. For one, the minimum sentence is if you were to prefer to sell a single surface-to-air missile, and Viktor Bout was offering to sell an arsenal that would be befitting any army: 700 to 800 surface-to-air missiles, C-4 explosives, tons of that, explosives, ammunitions, you name it. But the judge said, "Look, the prosecution did not convince me during the trial that Viktor Bout was any more than a businessman, maybe in the service of the types of business we may not all like, but you did not convince me that he had a violent past, that he had armed warlords, guerrillas, militias all over the world. You did not convince me, and therefore, I can’t say whether Viktor Bout would have really gone through with this particular deal."
JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, you’ve been tracking the exploits of Viktor Bout for many years. How did you first come across him and his activities?
KATHI LYNN AUSTIN: Well, I went into the field into eastern Congo and Rwanda in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. There was a U.N. arms embargo in place at the time, and I was tracking and monitoring who was violating those—that U.N. sanctions regime. Viktor Bout’s name kept cropping up as one of the lead entrepreneurs willing to facilitate weapons into the area to both sides of the conflict. And basically what Viktor Bout did was he built an empire by gobbling up all the sort of small mom-and-pop shops of arms trafficking. And that’s how he really rose to the top to become the "merchant of war."
AMY GOODMAN: What was Viktor Bout’s relationship with the U.S. government and with U.S. companies?
KATHI LYNN AUSTIN: Well, Viktor Bout has served many governments in the past in their national security operations. So even when I was bringing forward compelling evidence—I collected forensic evidence, I collected documentary evidence in the field. And even as I was bringing forward that information, I was testifying before the U.S. Congress, I was talking to U.S. State Department intelligence officials—this is from the mid-1990s—still there was no action taken against Viktor Bout. And that was because the U.S. government saw that his services were very valuable for national security operations.
The most recent case where American officials and American private security firms were colluding with Viktor Bout was during the Iraq war. And that is one of the startling reveals during the trial and the sentencing. Viktor Bout wrote to the judge, basically saying, "Look, I’ve also worked for the U.S. companies. I’ve flown 140 flights. They’ve paid me $6 million." That’s probably, by the way, just the tip of the iceberg. "And so, why would you be convicting me, when, in fact, at the time that I was providing these services for the U.S. government, it was in violation of a U.S. law, an executive order signed by President Bush at the time, and it was in violation of U.N. sanctions?"
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, interestingly, you know, the film—Viktor Bout is probably most famous for the film, the Nicolas Cage movie, Lord of War, that is loosely based on his life. But in that film, it’s an American agent who’s constantly trying to track him down and is unsuccessful in catching him. But you’re saying that—obviously, that the U.S. government had a much more complex role and relationship to all of his activities.
KATHI LYNN AUSTIN: Well, the hypocrisy is really what’s making this case—you know, I’m very happy that justice has been served, in the sense that he will be put away for 25 years, so he will be taken out of the equation. I think that we can expect a lot of the world to be far more peaceful as a result. But the hypocrisy in convincing the rest of the world that we should rein in these arms traffickers and these war profiteers, that didn’t surface during the trial, because of the way the U.S. government approached the case, because the U.S. government hasn’t come clean. One of the things that my organization, in conjunction with other human rights organizations, are calling for is a congressional inquiry, a public accounting for what was the U.S. role in its complicity with Viktor Bout for a lot of his illicit arms trafficking operations in the past.
AMY GOODMAN: Voice of Russia spoke to Viktor Bout in prison recently. One of the questions the reporter asked Bout was if the film Lord of War, starring Nicolas Cage, had prejudiced public perception about him.
VIKTOR BOUT: Even an agent on the first arrest, they started to say, "Oh, we saw the movie about you. We’re so excited. Let us take picture with you." It’s like a trophy. I’m, for them, like, you know, hunted deer whom they killed, and now they want take a picture with, you know, some wild animal, and now they catch him. They’re going to put in their kitchen and show their kids and grandkids, and, "Oh, we hunted that animal." But who, in the first place, created at me about this animal?
AMY GOODMAN: That was Viktor Bout being interviewed by Voice of Russia. You’re talking about calling for an investigation, further investigation, into U.S. relationship with Viktor Bout. Who would you be calling up for this investigation, if it ever took place?
KATHI LYNN AUSTIN: Well, we know President Bush in 2004 signed an executive order making it illegal for any U.S. entity to do business with Viktor Bout. We had a number of private security firms. We had Brown & Root, we had Halliburton, that were linked to former Vice President Cheney, who were involved at the time with Viktor Bout. Even as we investigators confronted the U.S. government about these illicit activities, these private security firms continued to use Viktor Bout in violation of U.S law, in violation of U.N. sanctions, even American agencies. On one hand, you had the Department of Justice issuing a list of all companies and entities that the U.S. government and U.S. private firms were prohibited from doing business with. Viktor Bout’s companies were on that list. So you had the Department of Justice, on one hand, and yet you had the Department of Defense that continued to see—to seek out Viktor Bout’s services.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And what about this sting operation in which he was arrested, where supposedly the United States government paid significant sums of money to other traffickers who were involved in the sting operation? And could you talk about their records and the concerns about the kind of people they used to grab him?
KATHI LYNN AUSTIN: Juan, that’s one of the things that really startled me during the trial, was the two confidential sources that the U.S. government used. One was a former Guatemalan military officer. Another was a former Colombian military officer. They had both been—had poor human rights records for the way—the brutality in the way that they had gone after guerrillas in their own countries. But even after that, they had become cocaine traffickers. Both of them came forward to the U.S. government, said, "Look, we’ll start working for you, if you ensure us some form of amnesty and bring our families to the United States." So, here we were using former cocaine traffickers in order to bring Viktor Bout to justice.
And during the trial, the DEA said, "Look, this was too dangerous for U.S. officers to go out and do this. This is why we relied on them." And we were paying them in excess of $8 million. What I have to say to that is human rights investigators like myself have been going out into the field for over 15 years. We have been working on shoestring budgets. And we have been collecting evidence and bringing it forward to the U.S. government to act. So there was no need for us to rely on cocaine traffickers to go after this type of criminal.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And what about Bout’s claim that if you were to use the same standards on him as you would—you’d be arresting most of the—most of the arms merchants here in the United States? Because, obviously, the United States sells half or so of all the weapons in the world.
KATHI LYNN AUSTIN: Well, I think you’ve touched upon the problem. The problem is that there’s two sides of the equation. There is what is the illegal trade, and then there is the illicit black market trade. What is going to happen in July of this year at United Nations headquarters is that, for the first time, there is going to be negotiations for a conventional arms trade treaty. Now that treaty will address the very question of what can be considered legitimate government-to-government arms sales. But what I have been calling for, and a number of other organizations in a broader umbrella campaigning network, is that unless the arms trade treaty includes these types of intermediaries, the arms traffickers, the brokers, the transport agents, the financial agents, then—unless that treaty includes their activities, then we will continue to see the black market thrive.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for being with us, Kathi Lynn Austin, former U.N. arms trafficking investigator, executive director of the Conflict Awareness Project, which tracks global weapons traffickers, exposing the illicit world of war profiteering.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back from break, we go to Bahrain. We’ll be speaking with May Ying Welsh, who is a award-winning journalist with Al Jazeera. Last night she won the George Polk Award for her documentary, Bahrain: Shouting in the Dark. Stay with us.