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Jailed arms dealer Bout, 'the Merchant of Death,' may be swapped for 2 Americans

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

WNBA star Brittney Griner went back to court today in Moscow. It's been a month since her trial began on drug charges that could carry a penalty as high as 10 years in prison. U.S. government, meanwhile, is negotiating for Griner's freedom and that of another American, former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan. The Biden administration insists both Griner and Whelan are wrongfully held, but officials have offered to trade a notorious arms dealer for their release. Viktor Bout was arrested in a sting operation in Bangkok by DEA agents posing as weapons buyers, and he's serving 25 years for conspiring to kill Americans and providing aid to terrorists. NPR's Michael Sullivan takes a closer look.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Viktor Bout has now spent more than a decade in a federal prison in Marion, Ill. But for nearly two decades before his arrest, Bout was perhaps the most successful arms dealer in the world.

DOUGLAS FARAH: He came out of the Russian intelligence services after having spent time in Africa and as the Soviet Union sort of disintegrated. He had a vision that no one else really did.

SULLIVAN: Douglas Farah is co-author of a 2007 book about Bout called "Merchant Of Death." That vision, he says, was realizing there were lots of idled planes all over the former Soviet Union and huge stocks of weapons no longer being guarded because the guards weren't getting paid.

FARAH: And he saw the possibility of marrying those two things to feed the wars around Africa and elsewhere that were still raging. And there were clients lining up to buy these weapons. And he simply realized he could make a lot of money marrying those two products together and providing a service that people wanted.

SULLIVAN: His exploits became the stuff of fiction - the 2005 Nicolas Cage movie "Lord Of War" based loosely on Bout's life.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LORD OF WAR")

NICOLAS CAGE: (As Yuri Orlov) Selling guns is like selling vacuum cleaners. You make calls, pound the pavement, take orders. I was an equal-opportunity merchant of death. I supplied every army but the Salvation Army.

SULLIVAN: The real-life Viktor Bout, Farah says, armed Charles Taylor in Liberia, Mobutu in Zaire and Savimbi in Angola. He armed the Taliban and Hezbollah, as well. And here's the thing, says Farah, Bout often supplied arms to both sides in a conflict at the same time.

FARAH: He was essentially a one-stop shop for them. They could come. He would deliver them. He would take care of the paperwork. And the reason - when I asked people for the book, why didn't one side or the other in the same conflict kill him? And why - you know, why would you allow the man to arm your enemy? And the one guy said, you know, you don't ever shoot the mailman. You know, he was the postman. You don't shoot him. So his ability to arm both sides was not clandestine. It was fairly overt.

SULLIVAN: And, Farah told me, in 2009, Bout counted among his clients the U.S. Department of Defense, which used his planes in the war in Iraq.

FARAH: One of the problems U.S. contractors were having is that no one would sell them insurance to fly into Baghdad in the middle of a war. And Viktor Bout had no concerns about insurance. He kept flying, even as the Treasury Department in the United States was ratcheting up a series of sanctions on him and his companies. He would simply switch the names of his companies and keep flying into Iraq, where the military was happy to use him. And we calculated in our book that he flew well over a thousand missions for the United States.

SULLIVAN: But that relationship ended in 2007, and the U.S. DEA saw an opportunity - luring Bout to Bangkok, using agents posing as Colombian guerrillas looking to buy weapons. They'd used a similar trick with another arms dealer just a few years before.

Then-DEA Operations Chief Michael Braun.

MICHAEL BRAUN: The more we looked at it, the more we thought about it, we just felt strongly that Viktor Bout would not, in his wildest imagination, believe we would use the same scenario twice. So we rolled the dice, and it worked out in our favor.

SULLIVAN: But they had to get Bout back to the U.S. first, and that took time because Russia was lobbying Bangkok hard to get Bout home. There was even a Free Viktor icon on a Russian military website at the time. In our 2009 interview, former DEA Ops Chief Braun was clear about what he believed would happen if bout went home to Russia.

BRAUN: There's no doubt in my mind he'll be back doing what, you know, he does best and that is arm the potpourri of global scum with weapons that they need to keep their criminal enterprises and insurgent and terrorist movements operational.

SULLIVAN: The Thais extradited Bout to the U.S. instead, where he was convicted in 2011 and sentenced to 25 years, even as Russia kept trying to win his release.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (Speaking Russian).

SULLIVAN: Russian state-run media continues to insist that the case against Bout was politically motivated. He's now almost 12 years into his sentence.

SHIRA SCHEINDLIN: I believe he's already served sufficient time for the crime for which he was sentenced.

SULLIVAN: That's Shira Scheindlin, the former U.S. district judge who sentenced Bout. She's now in private practice doing international and domestic arbitration. She told me last week she saw Bout as a businessman, not a terrorist, and probably would have given him a lighter sentence if not bound by mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines less than a decade after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

SCHEINDLIN: A lot of folks sell arms. A lot of Americans sell arms. So in that sense, I saw him as a businessman in the business of international arms trafficking, but not really, himself, a ideological terrorist. He had no ideology.

SULLIVAN: Bout's supporters say his confession was coerced. Former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who's already served more than three years in a Russian prison, says he was set up by Russian secret police, sentenced to 16 years for espionage for a crime he didn't commit. Brittney Griner has pleaded guilty to having a small amount of hash oil in her suitcase, but says packing it was a mistake. Former Judge Scheindlin says swapping both for Bout would be a good deal.

SCHEINDLIN: I would not have felt that way if it was just a one-on-one for Ms. Griner because she almost did nothing. What she did wouldn't even be a prosecutable offense here. It wouldn't even warrant an hour in jail. So it would be very disproportionate. But if we get the two back, I think that's proportionate.

SULLIVAN: But, she says, there's a caveat.

SCHEINDLIN: All of that said, these trades are always problematic because there's a risk that it encourages a foreign country to grab Americans wrongly in order to make a trade. So that's always a risk. But nonetheless, countries do it to get back their own citizens, and they should.

SULLIVAN: It's a risk the Biden administration has apparently decided it's willing to take if Russia really wants Bout back.

Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Chiang Rai, Thailand.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMON TOBIN'S "EASY MUFFIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Michael Sullivan
Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.