MOSCOW — A Russian arms dealer labeled the “Merchant of Death” who once inspired a Hollywood movie is back in the headlines with speculation around a return to Moscow in a prisoner exchange.
Viktor Bout (55), could indeed be freed as a reward for WBNA star Brittney griner and former U.S Marine Paul Whelan. According to reports, this would enhance the story of the charismatic arms dealer, which the U.S. had held for nearly a decade.
Continue reading: Where Brittney Griner’s Case Goes From Here, and What It Will Take to Bring Her Home
Depending on the source, Bout is a swashbuckling businessman unjustly imprisoned after an overly aggressive U.S. sting operation, or a peddler of weapons whose sales fueled some of the world’s worst conflicts.
Nicolas Cage film, 2005 Lord of WarBout, an ex-Soviet air force officer and a source of weapons for civil wars throughout South America, Africa and the Middle East, was loosely inspired. His clients were said to include Liberia’s Charles Taylor, longtime Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and both sides in Angola’s civil war.
Shira A. Scheindlin, the former New York City federal judge who sentenced Bout before returning to private law practice, can be counted among those who would not be disappointed by Bout’s freedom in a prisoner exchange.
“He’s done enough time for what he did in this case,” Scheindlin said in an interview, noting that Bout, a vegetarian and classical music fan who is said to speak six languages, has served over 11 years in U.S. prisons.
Continue reading: Merchant of Death Viktor Bout’s Home Movies of Arms Dealer Shows a Different Persona
In 2011, he was sentenced to a life sentence for terrorism. According to his prosecution, he had offered to buy weapons worth up to $20,000,000 including surface-to air missiles that could be used to down U.S. helicopters. When they made the claim at his 2012 sentencing, Bout shouted: “It’s a lie!”
Bout has steadfastly proclaimed his innocence, saying he’s a legitimate businessman and didn’t sell weapons. He’s had plenty of support from high-level Russian officials since he was first arrested. Bout’s extradition to the U.S. from Thailand was witnessed by a Russian Parliament member.
Last year, some of his paintings were displayed in Russia’s Civic Chamber, the body that oversees draft legislation and civil rights.
Viktor Bout sat in his detention area at Bangkok’s criminal court, Thailand. He was waiting for his verdict on August 11, 2009.
Bout’s case fits well into Moscow’s narrative that Washington is lying in wait to trap and oppress innocent Russians on flimsy grounds.
“From the resonant Bout case a real ‘hunt’ by Americans for Russian citizens around the world has unfolded,” the government newspaper Rossiiskaya GazetaLast year, wrote.
Russia is citing his case more frequently as a matter of human rights. He was accompanied by his lawyer and wife. His health is declining in harsh prison conditions where Americans aren’t eligible for the same breaks as Americans.
Last month, Russia’s human rights commissioner Tatyana Moskalkova said: “We very much hope that our compatriot Viktor Bout will return to his homeland.”
Continue reading: The Violent, Long History of the Russian Prison in which the American Spy Charged Is Held
Moskalkova said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the General Prosecutor’s Office, and the Ministry of Justice were working to see if Bout might qualify for transfer to Russia to serve the rest of his sentence.
“We are also constantly in dialogue in order to find a compromise in resolving this issue,” she said.
Bout will be released from Marion’s medium-security prison in Illinois in August 2029.
“If you asked me today: ‘Do you think 10 years would be a fair sentence,’ I would say ‘yes,’” Scheindlin said.
“He got a hard deal,” the retired judge said, noting the U.S. sting operatives “put words in his mouth” so he’d say he was aware Americans could die from weapons he sold in order to require a terrorism enhancement that would force a long prison sentence, if not a life term.
“The idea of trading him shouldn’t be unacceptable to our government. It wouldn’t be wrong to release him,” Scheindlin said.
Exchange for Griner would be ‘troubling’
Still, she said an even exchange of Griner for Bout would be “troubling.” The WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist was arrested in February at a Moscow airport, where police said they found cannabis oil in a vape canister in her luggage. While the U.S. government has classified her as “wrongfully detained,” Griner pleaded guilty to drug possession charges on July 7 at her trial in a Russian court. She is due to continue her trial on Thursday.
Scheindlin said Griner was arrested for something that “wouldn’t be five minutes in jail.”
This sentiment is also shared by other people. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch said in a July 9 editorial that Bout illegally trafficked billions of dollars of weapons “to feed wars around the world” and has “the blood of thousands on his hands,” while Griner “made a stupid mistake with a tiny amount of cannabis. She harmed no one.”
Griner could spend up to 10 years prison. Those who know that prisoner swaps often precede similar moves knew this and expected Griner to plead guilty. Whelan, who was accused of spying on the U.S. three years earlier, was arrested.
Bout is currently serving a 25-year mandatory sentence. Scheindlin did this in April 2012. But she stated that she only did this because it was necessary.
Continue reading: What to Know About WNBA Star Brittney Griner’s Detention in Russia
Bout was defended by his lawyer at the time. He claimed that Bout had been targeted vindictively by the U.S. because it was ashamed of his businesses’ contribution to the delivery of goods to American military contractors who were involved in the conflict in Iraq.
Bout’s reputation as an illegal arms dealer and notoriously infamous UN sanctioned him since 2001 led to the delivery of these weapons.
Prosecutors had urged Scheindlin to impose a life sentence, saying that if Bout was right to call himself nothing more than a businessman, “he was a businessman of the most dangerous order.”
Bout, who was worth $6 billion as of March 2008 was captured in Bangkok. U.S. authorities tricked him into leaving Russia for what he thought was a meeting over a business deal to ship what prosecutors described as “a breathtaking arsenal of weapons — including hundreds of surface-to-air missiles, machine guns and sniper rifles — 10 million rounds of ammunition and five tons of plastic explosives.”
He was taken into custody at a Bangkok luxury hotel after conversations with the Drug Enforcement Administration sting operation’s informants who posed as officials of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, also known as the FARC. Washington had classified the group as a terrorist group.
He arrived in the U.S. November 2010
The “Merchant of Death” moniker was attached to Bout by a high-ranking minister of Britain’s Foreign Office. The nickname was included in the U.S. government’s indictment of Bout.
Here are more must-read stories from TIME