Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, swapped Thursday for WNBA star Brittney Griner, is widely known abroad as the “Merchant of Death” who fueled some of the world’s worst conflicts.
In Russia, however, he's seen as a swashbuckling businessman who was unjustly imprisoned after an overly aggressive U.S. sting operation.
The 2005 Nicolas Cage movie “Lord of War” was loosely based on Bout, a former Soviet air force officer who gained fame supposedly by supplying weapons for civil wars in South America, the Middle East and Africa. His clients were said to include Liberia’s Charles Taylor, longtime Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and both sides in Angola’s civil war.
On Thursday, the U.S. and Russia announced that Griner had been exchanged for Bout, and that he was headed home.
Russia had pressed for Bout’s release for years and as speculation grew about such a deal, the upper house of parliament opened a display of paintings he made in prison – whose subjects ranged from Soviet dictator Josef Stalin to a kitten.
The show of his art underlined Bout’s complexities. Though in a bloody business, the 55-year-old was a vegetarian and classical music fan who is said to speak six languages.
Even the former federal judge who sentenced him in 2011 thought his 11 years behind bars was adequate punishment.
“He’s done enough time for what he did in this case,” Shira A. Scheindlin told The Associated Press in July as prospects for his release appeared to rise.
Griner, who was arrested at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport in February after vape canisters containing cannabis oil were found in her luggage, was sentenced in August to nine years in prison. Washington protested her sentence as disproportionate, and some observers suggested that trading an arms merchant for someone jailed for a small amount of drugs would be a poor deal.
Bout was convicted in 2011 on terrorism charges. Prosecutors said he was ready to sell up to $20 million in weapons, including surface-to-air missiles to shoot down U.S. helicopters. When they made the claim at his 2012 sentencing, Bout shouted: “It’s a lie!”
Bout has steadfastly proclaimed his innocence, describing himself as a legitimate businessman who didn’t sell weapons.
Bout’s case fit well into Moscow’s narrative that Washington sought to trap and oppress innocent Russians on flimsy grounds.
“From the resonant Bout case, a real ‘hunt’ by Americans for Russian citizens around the world has unfolded,” the government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta wrote last year.
Increasingly, Russia cited his case as a human rights issue. His wife and lawyer claimed his health deteriorated in the harsh prison environment where foreigners are not always eligible for breaks that Americans might receive.
Bout had not been scheduled to be released until 2029. He was held in a medium-security facility in Marion, Illinois.
“He got a hard deal,” said Scheindlin, the retired judge, noting the U.S. sting operatives “put words in his mouth” so he’d say he was aware Americans could die from weapons he sold in order to require a terrorism enhancement that would force a long prison sentence, if not a life term.
Scheindlin gave Bout the mandatory minimum 25-year sentence but said she did so only because it was required.
At the time, his defense lawyer claimed the U.S. targeted Bout vindictively because it was embarrassed that his companies helped deliver goods to American military contractors involved in the war in Iraq.
The deliveries occurred despite United Nations sanctions imposed against Bout since 2001 because of his reputation as a notorious illegal arms dealer.
Prosecutors had urged Scheindlin to impose a life sentence, saying that if Bout was right to call himself nothing more than a businessman, “he was a businessman of the most dangerous order.”
Bout was estimated to be worth about $6 billion in March 2008 when he was arrested in Bangkok, Thailand. U.S. authorities tricked him into leaving Russia for what he thought was a meeting over a business deal to ship what prosecutors described as “a breathtaking arsenal of weapons — including hundreds of surface-to-air missiles, machine guns and sniper rifles — 10 million rounds of ammunition and five tons of plastic explosives.”
He was taken into custody at a Bangkok luxury hotel after conversations with the Drug Enforcement Administration sting operation’s informants who posed as officials of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, also known as the FARC. The group had been classified by Washington as a narco-terrorist group.
He was brought to the U.S. in November 2010.
The “Merchant of Death” moniker was attached to Bout by a high-ranking minister of Britain’s Foreign Office. The nickname was included in the U.S. government’s indictment of Bout.