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Alleged Russian Arms Dealer Extradited To N.Y.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

One of the world's most notorious arms dealers appeared this afternoon in a U.S. courtroom. Viktor Bout faces conspiracy and terrorism charges. Bout is a former Soviet air force officer. He was extradited this week from Thailand.

NPR's Carrie Johnson reports on the man prosecutors are calling The Merchant of Death.

CARRIE JOHNSON: Viktor Bout made billions of dollars selling missiles and rocket launchers on the black market. But his high flying operation ran into the ground when he was captured in a U.S. sting in Bangkok two years ago. Bout appealed his extradition to the highest levels of the Thai government. And this week, he lost.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara laid out some of the evidence.

Mr. PREET BHARARA (U.S. Attorney, Southern District, New York): In a series of recorded meetings and telephone calls, in South America, in Europe and in Asia, Bout and his associate allegedly made clear that they were ready, willing and able to provide a substantial arsenal to the FARC for use against the United States.

JOHNSON: The FARC is a group of Colombian rebels designated as terrorists by the U.S. government. And just how big was that arsenal?

Mr. BHARARA: More than 700 surface-to-air missiles, 5,000 AK-47 assault rifles, anti personnel landmines, C4 explosives and literally millions of rounds of ammunition.

JOHNSON: Bout faces four criminal charges, including conspiracy to kill Americans working with the Colombian government. He could spend the rest of his life in prison if he's convicted.

Mike Braun is a former operations chief at the Drug Enforcement Administration with knowledge of the case. He says authorities devoted enormous resources to the investigation.

Mr. MIKE BRAUN (Former Operations Chief, DEA): Yeah, judicially approved wiretaps, informants or confidential sources, as well as DEA special agents operating in a number of countries around the globe, working shoulder-to-shoulder with their host nation counterparts.

JOHNSON: For more than 20 years, Bout allegedly provided weapons to dictators in Africa and hostile governments in the Middle East. Sometimes, he sold his wares to people on both sides of a conflict, taking all of the profit for himself and building up a fleet of 50 cargo planes.

Again, Braun.

Mr. BRAUN: Bout had the ability to deliver the most sophisticated weapons that came out of the old Soviet-bloc nations, to anywhere along the globe with pin point accuracy.

JOHNSON: In a Manhattan courtroom today, Bout pleaded not guilty and the judge ordered him held with out bail. Prosecutors say they've got some help with their case. They persuaded one of Bout's associates to plead guilty and to provide evidence against him at next year's trial.

Former prosecutor and Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff, says the government's already leaped over the biggest hurdle in the Bout case.

Mr. MICHAEL CHERTOFF (Former Secretary, Department of Homeland Security): Often the most difficult part of these international prosecutions is getting the defendant before a federal court. Because you need to have the cooperation and permission of the country which is holding the defendant, in order to make the transfer.

JOHNSON: And Bout isn't the first international arms dealer to face justice in New York. Two years ago, prosecutors there convicted Monzer al-Kassar. He's a weapons merchant from Syria who was caught in a similar sting operation, where undercover agents pretended to be the FARC - that same group of Colombian rebels. Al-Kassar got a 30-year prison sentence. The Justice Department is hoping that this case follows the same play book.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.