Trapping the Lord of War The Rise and Fall of Viktor Bout
Part 6: Offered a Deal
It is undeniable that some very strange things happened in Bangkok. Sirichoke Sopha, a member of parliament and a close adviser to Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, paid a visit to the prisoner on a Sunday in April.
Sopha allegedly offered the Russian a deal. The Thais wanted him to testify about an aircraft that authorities in Bangkok had seized in December 2009 with 35 tons of weapons on board, which was en route from North Korea to Iran and was being flown by a pilot Bout knew. If members of the Thai opposition are to be believed, the alleged deal also revolved around the possible extradition of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and allegations of abuse of office and incitement to terrorism. The Thai government wanted Bout to provide incriminating material. They also wanted the Kremlin to turn over the politician, who is currently spending much of his time in Montenegro and Moscow, to Bangkok. Only if these conditions were fulfilled would Bout be released and sent home to Russia.
Up to 30 Years
The American indictment -- "08 CRIM. 365, Southern District of New York versus Viktor Bout alias Viktor Bulakin alias Vadim Markovich Aminov" -- is based exclusively on the events in Bangkok. The principal charges are "conspiracy with the intent to kill American citizens" and the "support of a foreign terrorist organization." Experts familiar with the US justice system believe that the defendant, if convicted, could end up behind bars for 20 to 30 years, unless he cooperates and accepts a plea bargain.
Did the American prosecutors limit their case to the sham FARC weapons deal, because they have no other solid evidence? Is Washington trying to protect possible Russian backers, at least temporarily? Or are the US intelligence community and the Pentagon blocking the prosecutors from leveling more extensive charges, hoping to quietly sweep their own embarrassing cooperation with the merchant of death under the table?
Bout, at any rate, seems to be homesick for Moscow. "That's the only place I feel safe," he told his wife. It's arguably a sign of his close ties to senior government officials.
Both arms dealers and those who investigate them live very dangerous lives in that part of the world. Ivan Safronov, a journalist who wrote about shady deals, plunged to his death from a Moscow window in 2007. Though it was meant to look like a suicide, there are indications that it was a contract killing. Oleg Orlov, a Russian arms dealer, was arrested in Kiev and subsequently murdered in prison -- supposedly by a fellow prisoner.
Dozens of Others
SPIEGEL has one last meeting with Sergei Bout, not at the "Starlite," this time, but in a bar in downtown Moscow called "Monks and Nuns."
It is the day on which the media are reporting on a remarkable legal weapons deal: Washington has signed the biggest arms deal of all time with Saudi Arabia. According to calculations by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the world's 100 largest weapons makers sold $385 billion worth of munitions in 2008, an increase of 11 percent over the previous year. The world's three largest arms exporters are the United States, Russia and Germany. During the same period, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development spent $122 billion on development aid.
Sergei poses a hypothetical question: If someone can no longer do the job himself, aren't there dozens of others waiting to take his place? And are heads of state behaving any differently when they engage in their legitimate arms deals with each other? "I don't know why the Americans are so obsessed about prosecuting Viktor." He points out that anyone who thinks his brother will betray his country is deceiving himself. His brother, says Sergei, can take a lot and remains an optimist.
But then there is Viktor Bout's latest letter from the prison in Bangkok, in which he makes statements that seem pessimistic on the eve of his probable extradition. "The Americans have ways to get anyone to talk. Perhaps they'll torture me with chemical substances, or perhaps they'll stick me in a camp like Guantanamo. At any rate, I won't get a fair trial in the United States."
Bout ends the letter with these ominous words: "If I die in prison, it won't be a natural death."
BENJAMIN BIDDER, ERICH FOLLATH, MATTHIAS SCHEPP
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan