Alleged Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, dubbed the “Merchant of Death” for his hand in a number of bloody global conflicts, is on the last leg of a final appeal to save himself from extradition to the U.S. on terrorism charges. Bout was arrested after a 2008 sting in Bangkok, where he allegedly promised to supply weapons to U.S. agents posing as Colombian FARC rebels. His imprisonment set off a tug-of-war: a Thai court originally rejected Washington’s extradition request, prompting the U.S. to put forward new money-laundering and fraud charges in an attempt to keep Bout detained if the Thai court ordered his release. But that plan backfired; an appeals court reversed the decision against extradition, trapping Bout in a legal morass until the additional charges were dismissed last week, clearing the way for his extradition.
Bout is notoriously secretive about his past (Russia continues to demand his release, calling him an innocent businessman). But his beginnings are as humble as they are mysterious. He was born in the then-U.S.S.R. to an auto mechanic father and a bookkeeper mother in Dushanbe, the capital of what was Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic. After reportedly completing a special training program with Soviet military intelligence, Bout, who is said to be fluent in six languages, graduated from the Military Institute of Foreign Languages in Moscow, and subsequently visited Africa while working as a military translator in Mozambique and Angola. His alleged foray into arms dealing began after he was discharged from the military in 1991. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, a new world of opportunity opened. Bout took advantage of unused airplanes sitting on airport tarmacs, and perhaps unsold weapons; beginning with three cargo planes purchased for $40,000 each, he grew his fleet to four dozen aircraft registered in African and Middle Eastern countries with lax regulations.
What’s unclear is the kind of cargo Bout transported. Family and business associates claim he ran a legitimate business, ferrying everything from water filters and frozen chicken to flowers, food and electronic devices. He was known to fly aid materials and UN peacekeepers to areas affected by natural disasters and civil strife. But if investigators are right, Bout made the majority of his profits selling weapons to virtually every army in the world who could pay him. He’s said to have played a particularly shameful role in Sierra Leone’s civil war, supplying weapons to rebel units and allegedly contributing to thousands of civilian deaths and mutilations.
Even the U.S. collaborated with Bout for a time, hiring his Irbis Air company to supply its war in Iraq. And now, with his extradition case on his last legs, his family continues to fiercely maintain his innocence. His wife, Alla, told Germany’s Der Spiegel that the U.S. was “looking for a scapegoat, and a Russian arms dealer suited perfectly.” Bout’s lawyers have filed a last-ditch appeal, but his latest letter from prison shows a pessimistic outlook. “The Americans have ways to get anyone to talk. Perhaps they’ll torture me, or perhaps they’ll stick me in a camp like Guantánamo,” he says. “If I die in prison, it won’t be a natural death.”