By Carolyn Weaver
A federal judge in New York Thursday sentenced Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout to 25 years in prison for conspiring to sell weapons to a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist group based in Colombia.
U.S. District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin could have sentenced Bout to three life terms for his conviction on four counts of conspiracy to kill Americans, to sell anti-aircraft missiles, and to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization.
She chose instead to depart from sentencing guidelines, imposing 15-year terms on three counts and a required 25-year-minimum for a fourth, all to serve concurrently. The judge also ordered Bout to forfeit $15 million dollars, an amount equivalent to the value of the arms he had offered to sell U.S. informants posing as rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
The judge said she was imposing the lighter sentences because Bout was arrested in a U.S. sting operation in 2008 and had never before expressed any interest in harming Americans.
Before the Drug Enforcement Administration went after Bout, she said, there was no evidence that Bout had broken U.S. laws or those of any other country – although he had violated international laws in his past arms dealing, she said, and was a dangerous man.
The judge said it was not clear if Bout was even still in the arms trade for several years before he traveled to Thailand to meet with DEA confidential informants posing as FARC rebels who had offered to pay him millions for arms.
Before the sentencing, Bout addressed the judge, repeating his claims of innocence, and turned to wag his finger at the DEA agent in charge of the case, saying, “Let God forgive you and you will answer to him, not to me.”
Kathi Lynn Austin, an arms control advocate, said that the trial did not address Bout’s past dealing arms in conflict regions in Africa — or his air cargo contracts with the U.S. government during the Iraq war, even after United Nations sanctions against him in 2004.
“The most disappointing aspect of the trial is that it doesn’t set any precedent for what we need to do to go after criminal arms traffickers in the future. The prosecution’s decision to hide the past of what activities had been committed on U.S. soil, possibly hiding previous U.S. government collusion with Viktor Bout, actually worked against them,” Austin said.
Bout’s attorney, Albert Dayan, said that Bout would appeal his conviction. An official for Russia’s consulate in New York refused to comment after the sentencing, although Russia’s government has urged Bout’s release.