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NY trial starts for Soviet officer in weapons case

Opening statements were set to begin Wednesday in the trial of a former Soviet military officer accused of agreeing to sell weapons to anti-American rebels, but only after jurors promised in writing not to research the case on the Internet.

Viktor Bout, dubbed the Merchant of Death, was arrested in March 2008 in a Bangkok hotel, where authorities say he agreed to sell the weapons to U.S. operatives posing as anti-American rebels. He was brought to the United States late last year after losing a fight against extradition. The Russian government opposed his transfer.

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Twelve jurors and three alternates were chosen Tuesday during a daylong process. U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin required all of them to sign a first-of-its-kind juror pledge, in which they promised not to research any of the issues or parties involved in the trial on the Internet. The pledge contained a signature line after the words: "Signed under penalty of perjury."

Before the jurors' selection, the judge questioned them to make sure they could remain objective despite mentions of weapons including high-powered rifles, missile launchers and Stinger missiles.

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She also wanted jurors who would not be disturbed by allegations that Bout may have indulged in Africa many years ago in arms trafficking that did not break U.S. laws. No one said he or she was bothered by that.

Three prospective jurors expressed doubts after hearing there would be mentions at the trial about Fuerzas Armadas Revolucianarias de Colombia, or FARC, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization operating in Colombia.

The Drug Enforcement Administration-led sting counted on Bout thinking the FARC was looking forward to shipments of weapons that could be used against Americans.

The 44-year-old Bout has pleaded not guilty to charges that carry a potential life sentence. Blamed for fueling deadly Third World conflicts over the last decade, he has maintained through his lawyers that he is a legitimate businessman.

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