NEW YORK — A federal court judge sentenced convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout to 25 years in prison on Thursday, but in a swipe at prosecutors said there was no convincing evidence that he would have committed crimes they alleged if he had not been the target of a sting operation.
Judge Shira Scheindlin gave the 45-year-old Bout, known as the “Merchant of Death,” the minimum mandatory sentence for conspiring to acquire and use antiaircraft missiles. She also sentenced him to 15 years on three other counts of conspiracy to kill Americans and conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist organization, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC. Those sentences are to run concurrently with the 25-year term.
Prosecutors had demanded a life sentence for Bout, who was convicted in November. Prosecutor Brendan McGuire told the court Thursday that the plot to sell a massive weapons trove to FARC rebels, with the idea they would be used against Americans in Colombia, was “simply chilling.”
U.S. Atty. Preet Bharara called the sentence “a fitting coda for this career arms trafficker.”
Bout was captured in Thailand four years ago and extradited to the U.S. in 2010. He was held in solitary confinement at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan until February, when he was transferred to a detention facility in Brooklyn.
He appeared in court unshackled, in khaki pants and a khaki shirt. Despite his wife’s claims that he had been wasting away in prison, he appeared fit. He glanced back at her and at their teenage daughter when he entered the courtroom.
He made a brief, angry statement, pointing at federal agents and accusing them of lying. “They will live with this. ... They’ll have to raise their children with this truth,” he said in Russian, which was interpreted for the court.
At one point early in McGuire’s statement, Bout shouted, “It’s a lie!”
Defense attorney Albert Dayan said Bout had been out of the arms business for years and that the case against him was based on “words, just words.”
Scheindlin said that although Bout had a history of dealing arms “to some of the most vicious and violent regimes in the world,” he had not sought out a deal with FARC, which the U.S. has designated a terrorist organization.
“Rather, he embraced an opportunity presented to him,” she said, adding that prosecutors’ use of terrorism-enhancement charges were “fundamentally unfair.”
In a May 2008 indictment, prosecutors said Bout had used a fleet of cargo planes capable of transporting weapons and military equipment to Africa, the Middle East and South America. He allegedly covered up his illegal weapons deals by also using his planes to transport lawful goods such as food and medical supplies.
His alleged activities inspired a 2005 film titled “Lord of War” starring Nicholas Cage.
The indictment focused on a plot that allegedly involved months of meetings in far-flung locations to finalize a deal to air-drop several hundred surface-to-air missiles and thousands of AK-47 automatic weapons, plus millions of rounds of ammunition, to the Colombian rebels.
In an interview after visiting him in prison on the eve of the sentencing, Bout’s wife, Alla, said she and her husband were counting on incoming Russian President Vladimir Putin to save him from years in U.S. federal prison.
“Putin is for strengthening Russia’s political positions abroad, and the early release of my husband is something I hope can be accomplished with the Kremlin’s assistance,” said the 48-year-old clothing designer.
Putin served two terms as president and became prime minister when he was forced from office by term limits. He won a new presidential term last month in an election that critics called seriously flawed. He has frequently pursued a confrontational policy toward the United States. Russian officials have sharply criticized the sting operation that netted Bout and his treatment since then.
“In the episode in which my husband was set up by U.S. agents, no money exchanged hands, not a penny was transferred, and not a single item was supplied anywhere,” Alla Bout said. “How can you find a person guilty of terrorism and lock him up — not for concrete actions but for some words subject to wide interpretation?”
In the post-Sept. 11 era, “my husband was presented by the prosecutors to the terrified jury as a universal evil, and they easily fell for it,” she said.
“The way the United States is acting toward my husband indicates that they are set on further confrontation with Russia,” she added. “They want to revive the Cold War with Moscow.”
Susman reported from New York and Loiko from Moscow.