Viktor Bout Trial: Prosecution of Russian 'Merchant of Death' Begins

10/12/2011 08:22 pm ET | Updated Dec 12, 2011

NEW YORK -- Surface-to-air missiles. Armor-piercing rockets. Sniper rifles. Plastic explosives by the ton.

Viktor Bout, a former Soviet military officer, was ready to provide it all to the FARC, a drug-dealing revolutionary group at war with the Colombian government, federal prosecutors charged at the opening of Bout's trial in federal district court in lower Manhattan on Wednesday.

The deal was a sting operation and the Colombian revolutionaries -- who told Bout they intended to use the weapons to kill American pilots assisting the Colombian military -- were actually confidential informants working for the DEA. But while the deal was fake, Bout's criminal intent was not, assistant U.S. attorney Brendan McGuire told jurors.

"He jumped at the opportunity," McGuire said. "Why? For the money."

Bout, 44, was arrested in a Bangkok hotel by Thai police in 2008 and then extradited to the U.S. He is charged with four felony conspiracy counts, including conspiracy to murder Americans, and faces a maximum of life in prison if convicted.

Bout, a Russian citizen, gained notoriety in the late 1990s and early 2000s after United Nations arms investigators named him as a key transporter and trafficker of arms into conflict zones in Africa and Asia, including Rwanda, Liberia and Congo. Reports have linked him to notorious warlords and dictators, including Charles Taylor of Liberia, currently on trial for war crimes in the International Criminal Court.

Human rights groups and U.N. arms investigators dubbed Bout the "Merchant of Death" and his exploits served as the inspiration for the 2005 film "Lord of War," starring Nicholas Cage, about a flamboyant weapons dealer.

His attorney, Albert Dayan, did not dispute his client's gun-running past, but said Bout's business ventures had not actually violated any laws. "He did transport arms," he said. "You will hear that it is not a crime to do so."

Dayan promised to mount a vigorous defense against the conspiracy charges, arguing in court that Bout was lured to Thailand from Moscow with the prospect of selling two cargo planes for $5 million. The DEA used two confidential informants -- a pair of former criminals identified only as Carlos and Ricardo -- to ensnare Bout in a phony weapons deal he never intended to consummate, he said.

"The agents were baiting Viktor along with the promise of buying his planes," Dayan said. "They never truly believed that Viktor wanted to go through with this arms deal."

The prosecution said it would prove its case with intercepted phone calls, secretly recorded conversations, the testimony of the informants and one of Bout's co-conspirators in the weapons deal, a British arms trafficker who agreed to testify against Bout in exchange for a reduced sentence.

After the opening statements, prosecutors introduced evidence, including handwritten notes seized after Bout's arrest that appeared to outline a massive order of weaponry, including rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47 machine guns.

"You will hear Bout in his own words," McGuire said. "He revealed his complete mastery of every facet of an illegal weapons deal."