The release of a convicted Russian arms dealer, dubbed the “Merchant of Death” by his accusers and whose life story served as the basis for a Hollywood movie, could determine the fate of two American citizens who are currently incarcerated in Russia.
Former Soviet military officer Viktor Bout is currently incarcerated in the United States for 25 years after being found guilty of conspiring to kill Americans, buy and sell anti-aircraft missiles, and give material support to a terrorist group. Bout has insisted he is guiltless.
Bout’s 2012 sentencing was criticized by the Kremlin as being “baseless and unfair,” and the Kremlin has long demanded his release.
According to those briefed on the situation, Bout was reportedly offered by the Biden administration in exchange for Brittney Griner, a famous American basketball player, and Paul Whelan, a former US Marine.
Who is Viktor Bout?
The multilingual Russian businessman was detained in Thailand in 2008 during a drug enforcement sting operation run by US agents undercover as members of the FARC, also known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. After an extended legal process, he was finally extradited to the US in 2010.
“Viktor Bout has been international arms trafficking enemy number one for many years, arming some of the most violent conflicts around the globe,” said Preet Bharara, the US attorney in Manhattan when Bout was sentenced in New York in 2012.
“He was finally brought to justice in an American court for agreeing to provide a staggering number of military-grade weapons to an avowed terrorist organization committed to killing Americans.”
he trial honed in on Bout’s role in supplying weapons to FARC, a guerrilla group that waged an insurgency in Colombia until 2016. The US said the weapons were intended to kill US citizens.
But Bout’s history in the arms trade extended much further afield. He has been accused of assembling a fleet of cargo planes to traffic military-grade weapons to conflict zones around the world since the 1990s, fueling bloody conflicts from Liberia to Sierra Leone and Afghanistan. Allegations of trafficking activities in Liberia prompted US authorities to freeze his American assets in 2004 and blocked any US transactions.
Bout has repeatedly maintained that he operated legitimate businesses and acted as a mere logistics provider. He is believed to be in his 50s, with his age in dispute because of different passports and documents.
“His early days are a mystery,” Douglas Farah, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center who co-authored a book on Bout, told CNN in 2010.