Viktor Bout goes before US judge, facing four charges

Russian businessman Viktor Bout has been brought before a US judge for the first time, just one day after being extradited from Thailand. He will go on trial on four charges, including supporting terrorists.

“Accused armed dealer Viktor Bout begins to face American justice,” said Preet Bharara, US Attorney for Southern District of New York.

Viktor Bout came into US custody on Tuesday. In the courtroom, Viktor Bout, dubbed the “Merchant of Death” in the United States, pleaded not guilty to all allegations.

In the course of a brief news conference on Wednesday, US prosecutors detailed the charges brought against the Russian citizen.

“Viktor Bout now stands charged in this district, the Southern District of New York, with four charges,” said Preet Bharara, US Attorney for Southern District of New York. “One: conspiring to kill United States’ nationals. Two: conspiring to kill United States officers and employees. Three: conspiring to use and acquire anti-aircraft missiles and four: conspiring to provide material support to the FARC.”

Meantime, the US, too, stands accused of breaking laws to grab the Russian businessman – organizing a swift extradition from Thailand involving some 50 federal agents and US marshals and keeping the operation a secret from Bout’s lawyer, family, and Russian officials.

“Despite two rulings in Thailand’s criminal court, saying Viktor Bout’s guilt was not proven, the Thai government has still decided to hand him over to the US,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said. “I consider this unprecedented political pressure on a legal process and on Thailand’s government.”

Moscow has called the extradition of their citizen a “striking injustice”.

Bout, a former army officer, was arrested in Bangkok in March 2008, in a sting operation involving American law enforcement officials.

His wife Alla Bout, who even did not get a chance to say goodbye to her husband in Thailand, accuses the US of kidnapping him as a political pawn.

“This operation was illegal. It was done after lobbying from the US. Viktor was shipped to the US as if he were just a thing, without documents and without Russian Embassy being informed,” Alla Bout said.

Viktor Mizin of the Moscow University of International Relations, says there were there no serious grounds for Viktor Bout’s extradition to the United States.

“Nobody proved that he was actually involved in all these dirty dealings in which he is accused by the American side,” he said. “It is all based only on some kind of hearsay, some kind of rumors which, of course, are not a solid ground for whisking away an innocent man from the other country and bringing him to the United States.”

Viktor Bout is being held in solitary confinement at a federal prison in Lower Manhattan, with legal assistance from the Russian Consul.

Two Russian diplomats who visited Bout at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York on Wednesday say he has expressed a desire to seek additional assistance from outside counsel. Bout has also reportedly asked for assistance in relocating his wife Alla Bout to New York; she has spent the last two years along with Bout in Bangkok.

Andrey Yushmanov, the Russian Consul General in New York who visited Bout, said Bout claimed that US officials attempted to force a confession from him during a flight to New York.

“According to Viktor Bout, during the extradition the Americans attempted to convince him to make a confession of the crimes he had never committed, promising some kind of privileges in return,” Yushmanov said. “Bout rejected these offers.”

While some American media outlets call Bout “a super-informant” and speculate about dozens of secrets he must know, Kremlin officials say he has the level of support from Moscow that any Russian would have had in such circumstances.

A top Kremlin official stressed that Moscow is demanding fair treatment for its citizen, while not getting involved in the allegations that Bout faces.

“I want to stress that the US authorities have put some very serious and profound charges against this Russian citizen. We have nothing to conceal. We don’t consider this case as state secret or anything of the kind,” said Presidential Aide Sergey Prikhodko. “We want to see this investigation finalized. Bout has to answer all the questions raised by the US. He will be given protection and consular assistance. However, it doesn’t mean we are claiming that he is innocent.”

Washington has promised Bout a “fair and transparent” trial.

“Bout has been delivered to the US in accordance with the American-Thai agreement on extradition. He will receive a fair, open and transparent trial,” Phillip Crowley, Assistant Secretary of State, told a press briefing in Washington on Thursday. “As far as I am aware, the Russian consular staff has received full access to [Bout] to make sure that his rights are observed during the trial.”

Nevertheless, the chances of a fair trial for Viktor Bout are already in question, with the US media and the prosecution portraying him as a villain.

“I understand that there was a significant amount of political pressure put by the US on the Thai government – but I assure you that will be nothing compared to the pressure that the US is going to put on Mr. Bout,” said Douglas McNabb, a lawyer and expert on US international extraditions.