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Russian convicted in arms conspiracy plot

By Mick Krever, CNN
updated 9:55 PM EDT, Wed November 2, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Russian convicted on all four counts; attorney says he will appeal
  • The assistant U.S. attorney called the case against Bout "overwhelming"
  • Bout was often referred to as one of world's most notorious arms traffickers.
  • Bout tried to sell weapons to U.S. agents posing as Colombian rebels

New York (CNN) -- Convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout could face life in prison after a federal jury returned guilty verdicts Wednesday on four counts related to a conspiracy to kill Americans, acquire and export anti-aircraft missiles and provide material support to a terrorist organization.

Bout's attorney, Albert Dayan, said the verdict will be appealed.

"I still stand by my position that Viktor was wrongfully accused," said Dayan. "The jury has spoken but his position is still that he's innocent."

Widely dubbed "the Merchant of Death," Bout was often referred to by U.S. and U.N. officials as among the most notorious of global arms traffickers.

Bout's lawyer: 'We intend to appeal'
Bout guilty conspiring to kill Americans
'Merchant of Death' on trial

He had pleaded not guilty to all the charges.

Dayan said during the trial that the former Soviet air force officer was not involved in illegal arms sales, and that federal agents had baited Bout into selling the weapons alongside a deal to sell airplanes.

But Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for Manhattan, called the Russian tycoon "a very dangerous man" in a statement Wednesday. "He aimed to sell those weapons to terrorists for the purpose of killing Americans."

Commentary: Three chilling moments from the trial

The heart of the case stemmed from a 2008 sting operation in Thailand by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.

Undercover agents posing as Colombian rebels attempted to buy larges caches of weapons, according to a 2008 federal indictment.

Both the United States and the European Union identify the rebel group -- the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC -- as a terrorist organization.

The agents tried to purchase 700 to 800 surface-to-air missiles, thousands of AK-47s and landmines, telling Bout that they wanted the arms "to kill Americans," the indictment said.

Bout responded, it said, by saying he "was going to prepare everything the FARC needed."

During closing arguments Tuesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brendan McGuire called the evidence against Bout "overwhelming," pointing to alleged ties with various armed conflicts.

"He did everything he could to show that he could be a one-stop shop" for FARC, said McGuire.

Prior to his arrest, the DEA had struggled to draw Bout out of his Russian homeland, which is long thought to have sheltered and defended him.

Undercover agents met with Bout's associates the world over, from Curacao to Copenhagen, in an attempt to set up a meeting with their target, according to the indictment.

He was extradited to the United States in 2010 following his arrest and a protracted court proceeding in Thailand.

The Russian businessman has also been accused of assembling a fleet of cargo planes to traffic military-grade weapons to conflict zones around the world since the 1990s.

According to the indictment, he was suspected of creating front companies that used his planes to deliver food and medical supplies, as well as arms.

His alleged trafficking activities in Liberia prompted U.S. authorities to freeze his American assets in 2004 and prohibited U.S. transactions with him, it said.

Less than a year later, the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control placed 30 companies and four people on a specially designated list that carried similar actions against them.

Bout has maintained that he operated legitimate businesses and had acted as a mere logistics provider. His exact age is unclear, but he is believed to be in his late 40s or 50s, with his age in dispute due to different passports and documents. The U.S. attorney's office said it had no confirmed age.

Critics have accused Bout of providing arms to rebels in several countries and fueling bloody conflicts in places such as Liberia and Sierra Leone.

In 2000, then-British Foreign Office Peter Hain branded him "Africa's chief merchant of death" at a time when Bout is believed to have supplied arms to officials in Sierra Leone, a former British colony then embroiled in civil war.

"With today's verdict in the Southern District of New York, one of the world's most notorious merchants in illicit arms has finally been held to account for his heinous criminal profiteering in death and destruction," said DEA Administrator Michele M. Leonhart in a statement

The 2005 movie "Lord of War," starring Nicolas Cage, is considered to be largely inspired by Bout's life.

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