By Maxmilian Wechsler
THE arrest of former Soviet military interpreter Viktor Anatolyevich Bout, sensationalized in the media as the “Merchant of Death,” has got to be one of the most controversial cases involving a foreigner in the annals of Thai law enforcement.
Accused of weapons trafficking and supplying arms and logistics for bloody conflicts in Africa, Eastern Europe and Afghanistan, Mr Bout was arrested in Bangkok on March 6, 2009, in the 27th floor conference room of Sofitel Silom Hotel (now Pullman Bangkok Hotel G).
It was the culmination of an elaborate sting codenamed “Operation Relentless” and led by the US Drug Enforcement Administration. DEA undercover agents posed as members of the Colombian rebel group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which the US considered a terrorist organization.
Before his extradition to New York in November 2010 to stand trial, I paid several visits to Mr Bout at the high-security Klong Prem prison in Bangkok. During the first visit he told me emphatically that he had been set up and that Andrew Smulian, a long-time friend and former employee of his air-cargo company, had turned against him and cooperated with the DEA.
“Andrew told me that he had a client who wanted to buy a cargo aircraft from me. When he called me we always discussed the sale of airplanes. But once we were inside the meeting room of the Sofitel hotel…Andrew introduced me to two crazy guys who started to talk some bullshit – left and right, this and that. They acted like clowns, and the meeting went nowhere. I came to the meeting only with the intention of selling two aircraft,” said Mr Bout, adding that the men made it clear they wanted military arms.
“I told them that this was not my business and I was not dealing with that or have anything to do with it. At that moment they arrested me along with Andrew. We were separated later at the Crime Suppression Division (CSD) and I have never seen or heard from him since.” Mr Bout said this with more than a trace of anger. “They said that I wrote something about weapons. Well, I guess anyone can write ‘AK’ or whatever on a piece of paper and call it evidence,” he added.
When asked why he didn’t leave the meeting room after the DEA undercover agents said they were from FARC and started to talk about weapons, Mr Bout replied: “Because Andrew and I have known each other for 20 years.”
The Royal Thai Police (RTP) performed its role in the drama with a high degree of professionalism. RTP officers traced Mr Bout from the time he disembarked with his bodyguard Mikhail Belozersky from Aeroflot flight 553 originating in Moscow, from the plane at Suvarnabhumi airport until his arrival at the Sofitel Silom Hotel. Following a call from DEA undercover agents inside the conference room, the Thai police and DEA agents stormed the room with guns drawn and made the arrests without a hitch and without injuries.
The apprehension of the ‘Merchant of Death’ in Bangkok generated headlines around the world. However, a high-ranking police officer attached to the Crime Suppression Division (CSD) who was involved in the capture of Mr Bout said the whole case was “screwed up.” The officer, who requested anonymity, said he wouldn’t have become involved if he had known what they were getting into. He also described the dramatic police entry as “theatrics.”
When asked why the DEA took up Mr Bout’s case in the first place, the officer said: “The powers bestowed by the US Congress after 9/11 allowed the DEA to pursue any suspect connected to drugs. Mr Bout was in that category because the US claimed that he was involved with FARC, which has paid for weapons and other things with money obtained from the cocaine trade.”
The officer revealed that a lot of manpower and other resources were deployed by the RTP for the case: “We kept Mr Bout under surveillance from the airport to the hotel to make sure we didn’t lose him. He went straight from the airport to the hotel.” The officer described the surveillance methods used which we aren't at liberty to disclose.
The CSD officer added that everything that transpired during the meeting inside the conference room was videotaped.
Another officer who participated in the case said that the way the Thai police conducted themselves was proof they believed “this was the real thing,” meaning a dangerous situation, and that’s why all guns were drawn. He indicated that Mr Smulian never appeared in a Thai court before being taken to the US, which would be a violation of Thai law. Mr Smulian later testified during Mr Bout’s trial in New York.
The day after Mr Bout’s arrest, the US Department of Justice charged him with conspiracy to provide material support or resources to a designated foreign terrorist organization, conspiring to kill Americans, conspiring to kill American officers or employees, and conspiring to acquire and use an anti-aircraft missile. Mr Bout spent more than two and half years in Klong Prem awaiting the result of an extradition request from the US.
A Criminal Court judge ruled against the extradition on August 11, 2009. The jubilation of Mr Bout’s family and friends was in stark contrast to the stunned expressions worn by DEA and other American officials who were present in the courtroom.
On February 17, 2010, US prosecutors filled additional charges against Mr Bout including illegal purchase of aircraft, wire fraud, and money laundering. The Court of Appeal ruled on August 20, 2010 in favor of extradition. Mr Bout was escorted by DEA agents to a chartered plane on November 16, 2010 and flown to the US to stand trial. The Russian government called the extradition illegal.
Interviews with Viktor Bout
Following are excerpts from meetings with Viktor Bout before his extradition to the US
Who is Viktor Bout really, and why did you come to Bangkok?
I am a businessman, not an arms dealer. I came here to sell two airplanes, not weapons.
Who do you blame for your arrest?
I am in jail because of Andrew Smulian. He was my friend and I don’t understand why he joined with the Americans against me and for what reason he set me up. Most probably it was for the money.
Do you trust Mr Belozersky, who was arrested at the same hotel and released?
My friend, Mikhail Belozersky, who arrived with me from Moscow in the morning on that day [March 6] didn’t join the meeting. He waited for me in another section of the hotel business centre. He was also arrested but released after. He didn’t set me up.
No, I didn’t. Never! This is all bulls**t. Everything is inside the minds of the Americans. They don’t know what to do anymore in the world. These accusations made by the Americans are totally ridiculous and without foundations. In fact, it is very hard to get such weapons. The missiles are not available, even from the Russian Army. This is crazy. It is in someone’s imagination only.
What is your comment on the negative publicity you received in the Western media?
I must condemn reputable news organizations like BBC, CNN and other Western media for totally distorting the facts about my past activities. I would describe their coverage as mostly lies and fabrications.
What do you think about the movie ‘Lord of War?’
The movie is pure fiction, fantasy and fabrication which have nothing to do with me or my previous business. The movie didn’t make much money either.
When did you cease to operate your air freight company and did you fly goods to Iraq for the Americans after they invaded the country in 2005?
I stopped the business in 2000 after pressure from the Americans. They effectively took me out of business. I can categorically state that I have never shipped anything to Iraq as reported by the BBC and other news organizations nor did anything for the Americans there whatsoever. Before my company went out of business, some of our cargos included weapons, but that doesn’t mean that I am an arms dealer.
Why did the Americans want you so badly? Is there anything we don’t know? Do you know some secrets?
I don’t know any secrets! Why did they want me so badly? Why do they want so badly to be in Iraq? Why do they need to be in Afghanistan? Why do they need to keep Guantanamo open? Why do they keep detainees there and not to American soil? They commit one crime and try to cover it by committing another crime. They cannot stop. Once you will start lie, you need to lie a thousand times more.
Was the handwritten note used as evidence written by you?
No, anyone could have written it.
Grand jury pulls no punches
A New York Times (NYT) report states that a criminal complaint unsealed in Manhattan showed Mr Bout’s assignation in Thailand had taken shape after earlier meetings, most of them conducted by Mr Smulian with informants posing as members of FARC. The meetings took place in the Netherlands Antilles, located off the coast of Venezuela, and in Denmark and Romania. The faux FARC members sent emails to Mr Bout through Mr Smulian asking for a meeting to discuss a possible deal.
A US grand jury charged that at the Bangkok meeting Mr Bout indicated he could supply FARC with 700-800 surface-to-air missiles, 5,000 AK-47 firearms, three million rounds of ammunition, an unspecified number of land mines and C-4 explosives, and ultra-light planes fitted with grenade-launchers and missiles.
Mr Bout also allegedly stated that he could arrange an airdrop of the arms to FARC in Columbia and drew a diagram for two of the “confidential sources” (CS-2 and CS-3) to explain the delivery route, according to the charges. He also produced a map of South America and asked the undercover agents to identify US radar locations in Columbia.
The charges also say that Mr Bout offered to sell FARC two cargo planes and that he specified that he needed “at least 15 to 20 million,” without specifying the currency, to begin supplying the arms.
Mr Bout in the US
On November 2, 2011, Mr Bout was convicted by a jury at the Federal District Court in Manhattan of conspiracy to kill US citizens and officials, delivery of anti-aircraft missiles, and providing aid to a terrorist organization. On April 5, 2012, he was sentenced by Judge Shira A. Scheindlin to 25 years in prison – the minimum sentence allowed. The judge said that the minimum sentence was appropriate because “there was no evidence that Mr Bout would have committed the crimes for which he was convicted had it not been for the sting operation.”
In addition to his prison term, Judge Scheindlin sentenced Mr Bout to five years of supervised release after the term was up. She also ordered him to forfeit US$15 million – the assessed value of the goods he allegedly intended to deal – and immediately pay a US$400 special assessment fee. After the verdict, Mr Bout told the judge through an interpreter: “I am not guilty. I never intended to kill or sell arms to anyone.” He then turned to the two DEA agents who had helped convict him and said: “God knows the truth. Let God forgive you. You will answer to him and not me!”
In September 2013, the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals in New York upheld Mr Bout’s conviction after rejecting the argument that he had been the victim of a “vindictive” prosecution, including an illegitimate international sting operation. From January 2011 to June 2012, he was imprisoned in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York City.
In June 2012, he was transferred to a medium-security prison in Marion, Illinois. He is held there in the highly restrictive Communications Management Unit (CMU), a specialized block of the prison that Mr Bout calls a “mini-Guantanamo” run by the counter-terrorism department of the US Bureau of Prisons. The CMU maintains tight total control over inmates with the aid of surveillance of telephone conversations, emails and relatives’ visits.
US prison authorities placed Mr Bout under sanctions from October 6, 2015 for allegedly brewing tea in his cell that contained traces of alcohol. According to his lawyer, he was preparing the so-called tea mushroom or kombucha, a probiotic digestive aid drink. Mr Bout sought a new trial because of “newly discovered evidence” but the Court denied it on October 26, 2015. Disciplinary restrictions that included prohibiting the right to make telephone calls and purchases in the prison commissary were lifted in early January 2016.
Turning up international tensions
Mr Bout’s arrest and detention in Bangkok, extradition to the US and 25-year prison sentence have resulted in a protracted diplomatic rift between the US and Russia and put Thailand in an awkward situation as well.
In 2014, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued an official warning to all Russian citizens who travel abroad, especially to countries that have extradition agreements with the United States, which says in part: “The US administration makes a routine practice out of hunting for Russian citizens in third countries, with subsequent extradition and conviction in the USA, usually over dubious charges.”
The Russian Ambassador to Thailand, Kirill Barsky, said in an interview published by The BigChilli in December 2014 that Mr Bout’s guilt or innocence should be up to a Russian court to decide. “He was arrested illegally here and extradited to the US without proper cause. We are still fighting the case. He is in jail now but we still have a hope that his case may be reconsidered.”
DEA stages media triumph after Mr Bout’s arrest
FOLLOWING the arrest of Viktor Bout, DEA officials made a case in the international media for the rather unusual sting operation on foreign soil. In an interview with CBS 60 Minutes, former chief of operations for the DEA William Braun said: “Viktor Bout in my eyes is one of the most dangerous men on the face of the Earth. Bout first exploded on the scene in war-torn West Africa in the late 1980s, elevating bloody conflicts from machetes and single shot rifles to military grade assault rifles…AK-47s not by the thousands but by the tens of thousands.
“He transformed these young adolescent warriors into insidious, mindless, maniacally driven killing machines that operated with assembly line efficiency.”
60 Minutes’ Chief Investigative Correspondent Armen Keteyan added that according to the US indictment, “Bout had a unique selling point when it came to weapons trafficking – a fleet of cargo airplanes capable of transporting weapons and military equipment anytime, anywhere. With more than 60 planes in all, it was his own private air force.”
The plan to bring Mr Bout to Bangkok was devised by another DEA agent, Louis Millione. He described what happened in the conference room at the Sofitel Silom Hotel during two hours of negotiations between Mr Bout and four undercover DEA agents, three of whom were going by the monikers “Carlos,” “El Comandante” and “Eduardo.” Also present was Andrew Smulian, a long-time associate of Mr Bout who was cooperating with the DEA.
“The undercover agents made it very clear that they (FARC) were fighting against the United States,” said Mr Millione. He continued: “Bout responds and says, ‘Look, they are after me too. We are together in this. They are my enemy also.’ Eduardo and El Comandante talk about how they want sniper sights for the rifles that they have so that they could, quote, ‘Start blowing the heads off American pilots.’ Bout’s response immediately is, ‘Yes.’ ”
According to Mr Millione, about five minutes later one of the undercover agents made a phone call, a signal that it was time to spring the trap, and shortly after Thai police and DEA agents burst into the room with guns drawn.
A November 2008 BBC documentary supplied more information on a circumstance that DEA agents admitted “complicated” the US case.
Reported the BBC: “In the wake of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Mr Bout flew supplies for the Americans into Baghdad. When this was exposed US officials claimed it was a mistake, but Mr Bout’s company was one of the few willing to fly into a war zone. His planes also flew from RAF stations in Britain to Kosovo. The [UK] Ministry of Defense later said they had no knowledge the planes were linked to Mr Bout.”
Also in the BBC documentary was a segment in which Tom Pasquarello, head of the DEA’s Southeast Asia Bureau and the man who officially made the arrest, described Mr Bout’s attitude during the meeting as ‘Weapons R Us.’
“Anything we needed he was willing to provide. It was business and it really didn’t much matter if it was going to be used to kill Americans.”
In a March 2012 article in The New Yorker magazine, Nicholas Schmidle wrote: “Moments after Bout and Carlos stood up to shake hands and close the deal, Thai policemen and DEA agents burst through the conference-room door, weapons drawn. ‘Hands up!’ the Thais commanded. ‘You’re under arrest!’ Bout raised his arms and was shoved against a wall, his legs spread.
“A few minutes later, Tom Pasquarello walked into the room and found Bout sitting calmly at the table. Pasquarello introduced himself and asked him if he knew what was going on. ‘The game is over,’ Bout said.”
It’s worth asking how much of the Viktor Bout story that played in the media was based on fact and how much was adapted to conform to the larger-than-life role played by Nicolas Cage in the Hollywood fiction, Lord of War. If he really is evil incarnate and if the DEA case against him was so strong, why didn’t the Thai court agree to extradite him immediately instead of keeping him in a Thai prison for almost two and a half years, and why did the New York judge presiding over the case give him the lightest sentence possible?
When a foreign reporter working in Thailand asked an American official who was intimately involved in the case but shall remain unnamed why the US wanted Viktor Bout so badly, he replied: “Didn’t you see the movie?”
Mr Smulian also appeared before Judge Scheindlin in a New York court and on May 23, 2012 received only five years of the mandatory minimum 25-year sentence because government prosecutors said he had provided them with “substantial assistance.” As he had been held in the US since 2008, he had less than one year left to serve.
Mr Smulian testified that he began working for Mr Bout in the late 1990s, helping to acquire a base in South Africa for his boss’s air-transport operation, and that he later assisted Mr Bout in setting up companies in Swaziland and Zambia. The DEA approached him as early as 2007 through one of his old friends who was secretly cooperating with the drug agency. Mr Smulian was asked to convey a potential arms deal to Mr Bout.
Judge Scheindlin described Mr Smulian as a financially vulnerable, out-of-work air transporter who had known Mr Bout and who had been used as a conduit for the government to catch the man they really wanted. She also said there was no evidence that Mr Smulian would he ever “have been involved in terrorism” had he not been approached in the sting.
NYT interview with Judge Scheindlin
After almost 22 years tenure on the Federal District Court in Manhattan, Shira Scheindlin resigned in April this year. She commented on the Bout case in an interview with the NYT.
According to the newspaper, she revealed that “she believed that the 25-year sentence she imposed in 2012 on Mr Bout was excessive and inappropriate. But because one count carried a mandatory 25-year minimum sentence, she was unable to impose a lesser term.”
“There was no doubt Mr Bout had been an international arms dealer,” she is quoted as saying, ‘‘but by the time of his arrest, he was ‘pretty well retired.’
“The question was, ‘Was he still an international arms dealer, and does that matter?’ I am not defending him,” said the judge, “but he’s a businessman. He was in the business of selling arms. He was not a fighter or a terrorist from al-Qaeda who lives to blow up civilians in a supermarket.
“They reeled this guy in. They offered him a lot of money. I gave the lowest sentence I could possibly give,” she added.
Interviews with Alla Bout
Alla Bout was in Bangkok during most of her husband’s detention at Klong Prem Central Prison and also agreed to several interviews. Here are some excerpts:
How did you meet your husband?
We got acquainted in Mozambique in 1989. He was then an interpreter attached to the military mission in the capital Maputo. We fell in love and married in 1992 in my hometown, St Petersburg. We moved to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 1993. Victor opened a company there employing three people at first. We lived there until the end of 2000 when the problems with the Americans started. They approached the local security service and, shortly after, Viktor was visited by their agents who gave him four days to close the business and to get lost, without giving a reason. After returning from UAE to Russia he had nothing to do and only wanted to sell his planes.
Some media portray him as the “Merchant of Death.” Can you tell us how your husband really is?
Viktor is a quiet, friendly and hospitable person who likes to communicate with people. He enjoys reading books and magazines and he loves poetry and philosophy. He likes cooking and I must say that he does it very well. Above all, he is a family man who spends a lot of time with his daughter.
How long have the US and other international agencies been after him?
The personal persecution against him began from 2001 and increased after the 9/11 attacks in the US. That’s when the Americans launched a new round of media hysteria against him. Every allegation thrown at him was a lie. He has done nothing wrong! It was a very difficult period for me as well because as a fashion clothes designer, all my customers began to look at me in a bad way. No Russian police visited us. Nobody was interested in him.
How did you find out about your husband’s arrest?
I was working in my shop in Moscow on that day (March 6, 2008) when the phone rang and I was told my husband had been arrested in Bangkok. It was a terrible shock for me and both our families! Viktor’s 71-year-old mother was immediately sent to the hospital after suffering from a brain stroke. I had to close down my shop and move to Bangkok to support my husband. I visit Viktor at the prison every day and bring him food and other items. Also, I talk to the defense team and communicate with Russian embassy officials.
What evidence does the US possess against your husband?
This case has nothing to do with reality. The Americans haven’t submitted any concrete evidence. What they have submitted, like photos of two airplanes and the alleged handwritten note from Viktor is not sufficient evidence. Anyone can print pictures of planes from the internet. They say they have photos of anti-aircraft missiles Viktor agrees to supply to FARC. Again, anything can be downloaded, including a flying saucer from Mars, and they can claim it is evidence against Viktor!
How should the world judge Viktor Bout?
There is an American movie called ‘Lord of War’ that they claim is about my husband. This is a Hollywood fiction!
Is Viktor rich?
(Laughter). He is not! I don’t know much about his money. Maybe he keeps it somewhere. If he had some, I would take it already…
Where do you find money to support yourself and pay for Viktor’s defense?
I have been using my savings, which have almost run out. My friends have also been helping.
Do you know about your husband’s business?
Of course, I know everything. I am his wife. He has never hidden anything from me! The air freight company was a legitimate and legal business. Viktor operated the charter flight service legally and couldn’t break any law or regulation as he was subject to police and custom controls in the UAE.