02:23 - Source: CNN
'Merchant of Death' goes on trial

Story highlights

NEW: Jurors must affirm they will not research Bout on the Internet, a court official says

Russian businessman Viktor Bout faces a wide range of counts

Conspiracy to kill Americans and violating U.N. sanctions are among the charges

"Bout did not intend to sell arms to anyone," his attorney says

New York CNN  — 

Accused Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout knowingly sold weapons to those he believed to be Colombian narco-rebels who intended to kill Americans, prosecutors said in opening statements in Bout’s trial Wednesday.

The Russian businessman, widely dubbed the “merchant of death” by his accusers, is charged with a wide range of counts, including conspiracy to kill Americans, attempting to sell arms to undercover federal agents, wire fraud and violating U.N. Security Council sanctions.

“I’m very confident that the trial will make it transparent that Viktor Bout did not intend to sell arms to anyone,” Bout’s lawyer, Albert Y. Dayan, said during pretrial hearings.

On Tuesday, a Manhattan federal judge asked jurors to sign a written assurance they will not look up reports on the Internet about the accused arms dealer.

International security experts say the charges in the trial encompass only a small fraction of what they believe Bout is responsible for.

Kathi Lynn Austin, an arms researcher, called Bout “the quintessential war profiteer” in an interview with CNN.

“He unquestionably made some of the worst wars of the 20th century, early 21st century, much worse than they would have been,” said Douglas Farah, a national security consultant who co-wrote a book about Bout.

The 2005 movie “Lord of War,” starring Nicholas Cage, was inspired by Bout’s life.

The heart of the charges against Bout stem from a 2008 sting operation in Thailand by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. According to a 2008 federal indictment, undercover agents posing as rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, attempted to buy larges caches of weapons from Bout.

Agents tried to buy 700 to 800 surface-to-air missiles, thousands of AK-47s, and landmines, according to the indictment. They told Bout that they wanted the arms “to kill Americans,” to which Bout said that he “was going to prepare everything the FARC needed.”

“It’s like getting Capone for a single homicide or a single jug of whiskey,” Farah said. “It’s actually what he was doing, but on a much smaller scale.” Al Capone was a powerful Chicago gangster of the 1920s who was sent to prison on tax evasion charges.

The DEA struggled to draw Bout out of his Russian homeland, which had long 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 wanted to close the deals himself, he liked to shake hands with the person he was selling the weapons to,” Farah said. “Ultimately, that was his undoing in Bangkok, because he wanted to fly in and close the deal himself.”

Bout has maintained that he was simply in the business of shipping, and has never been involved in arms sales.

“I’m not afraid. I don’t do anything in my life I should be afraid,” Bout told CNN’s Jill Dougherty in a 2002 interview in Moscow. “This whole story looks to me like a witch hunt.”