Who is Viktor Bout, the Russian arms trader dubbed the ‘Merchant of Death’?
It is possible that the release of a convicted Russian arms dealer, who was dubbed the “Merchant of Death” by his accusers and whose life story was the basis for a film, will determine the fate of two American citizens who are currently being held in Russian custody.
A former Soviet military officer named Viktor Bout is currently serving a prison sentence of 25 years in the United States. He was found guilty of conspiring to kill Americans, acquiring and exporting anti-aircraft missiles, and providing material support to a terrorist organization. The charges against him were brought forward in the United States. Bout has always insisted that he is not guilty.
Bout’s imprisonment in 2012 was criticized by the Kremlin as being “baseless and unfair,” and the Kremlin has long advocated for his release.
According to people familiar with the situation, CNN reported on Wednesday that the administration of President Joe Biden made an offer to trade Bout for American basketball star Brittney Griner and former United States Marine Paul Whelan. This information was obtained from people who were briefed on the matter.
Griner was arrested on drug accusations in February after she was detained at a Moscow airport. On the same day, she testified in a Russian court as part of her continuing trial on drug allegations. Whelan was taken into custody in 2018 on allegations of supposed espionage, and his trial was seen to be unjust by officials from the United States of America. He was subsequently sentenced to 16 years in jail.
Their families have requested that the White House do whatever it takes to gain their freedom, including engaging in a prisoner swap if that proves necessary. Now, the individual known as Bout, who for many years evaded international arrest orders and asset freezes, is at the core of that bid.
A sting operation conducted in Thailand in 2008 by United States Drug Enforcement Administration agents acting as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, also known by the abbreviation FARC, resulted in the arrest of a Russian businessman who is fluent in six different languages. After a drawn-out legal battle that lasted until 2010, he was ultimately extradited to the United States.
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When Viktor Bout was sentenced in New York in 2012, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, said that “Viktor Bout has been international arms trafficking enemy number one for many years,” adding that “Viktor Bout has armed some of the most violent conflicts around the globe.”
“He was eventually brought to justice in an American court for agreeing to deliver a stunning number of weapons of military grade to an openly terrorist organization committed to killing Americans,” the verdict said.
The prosecution focused on Bout’s role in supplying weapons to FARC, a rebel group that fought an insurgency in Colombia until 2016. This conflict lasted until 2016. The United States claimed that the weapons were designed to kill people living in the United States.
However, Bout’s background in the armaments trade stretched much further back than that. He is accused of assembling a fleet of cargo planes in the 1990s and using them to transport military-grade weaponry to war zones around the world. These munitions are said to have fueled brutal conflicts in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Afghanistan, among other places. Following allegations that he was involved in trafficking activities in Liberia, officials in the United States froze his assets in the United States in 2004 and prevented him from engaging in any transactions within the country.
Bout has stated on multiple occasions that he ran legitimate enterprises and served as little more than a logistical provider. Although there is some disagreement on his age due to the existence of many passports and documents, it is generally accepted that he is in his 50s.
Douglas Farah, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center and co-author of a book on Bout, told CNN in 2010 that “His early days are a mystery.” Farah also co-authored the book on Bout.
According to what Farah told Mother Jones magazine in 2007, Bout was born in 1967 in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, the son of a bookkeeper and an auto mechanic. This information comes from the various passports that Bout possesses. According to him, Bout received his degree from the Military Institute on Foreign Languages, which is a renowned training ground for members of the Russian military intelligence.
“He was a Soviet officer, most likely a lieutenant, who simply saw the opportunities presented by three factors that came with the collapse of the USSR and the state sponsorship that entailed: abandoned aircraft on the runways from Moscow to Kiev, no longer able to fly because of the lack of money for fuel or maintenance; huge stores of surplus weapons that were guarded by guards suddenly receiving little or no salary; and the booming demand for those weapons from traditionalists.”
According to what Bout has said, he served in the military of Mozambique at one point. Farah told CNN that some people have suggested that it was actually Angola, a country in which Russia maintained a significant military presence at the time. He initially came to the public’s attention when, in the early to middle of the 1990s, the United Nations opened an investigation against him, and shortly thereafter, the United States started becoming involved.
It is believed that Victor Anatoliyevich Bout was the model for the arms dealer character portrayed by Nicolas Cage in the film “Lord of War,” which was released in 2005.
Jill Dougherty of CNN had a meeting with Bout in Moscow in the year 2002. She questioned him about the claims that were made against him, inquiring whether or not he had sold weapons to the Taliban. “To al Qaeda?” He responded to each allegation by denying that he had supplied rebels in Africa and been paid for his services with blood diamonds.
He stated that the claim was untrue and that it was a falsehood. “In my entire life, I have never had any contact with a diamond. I’m not a diamond guy, and I have no interest in working in that industry.”
“I have nothing to worry about,” he assured Dougherty. “There is nothing in my past that should make me feel scared about the future.”