NEW YORK – A defiant Russian arms dealer dubbed the Merchant of Death for his history of arming violent dictators and regimes was sentenced Thursday to 25 years in prison, far short of the life term prosecutors sought for his conviction on terrorism charges that grew from a U.S. sting operation.
Viktor Bout’s sentence was the mandatory minimum he faced, though federal sentencing guidelines had called for life in prison.
U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin said it was appropriate because Bout’s crimes originated only because of an elaborate sting operation created by the Drug Enforcement Administration to catch one of the world’s most notorious arms dealers.
She said there was no evidence the 45-year-old Bout, a vegetarian and classical music fan who speaks six languages, had ever planned to harm Americans or commit a crime punishable in U.S. courts until the sting was created.
The sentencing came four years after Bout’s arrest in Thailand, where he was held before his extradition to the U.S. for trial in late 2010, and months after a jury convicted him of four conspiracy charges relating to his support of a Colombian terrorist organization.
The government had portrayed Bout, the inspiration for an arms dealer character played by Nicolas Cage in the 2005 film Lord of War, as one of the world’s worst villains, capable of empowering dictators in war-torn countries by supplying weapons that they could turn on their own people.
The defense had countered that Bout was a political prisoner, a victim of a sting that made it seem as if he hated Americans and was willing to sell surface-to-air missiles to a Colombian organization to shoot down U.S. helicopters.
Prosecutors said Bout constituted a threat to the United States and to the international community based on his reported history of arming some of the world’s most violent and destabilizing dictators and regimes.
Defense attorney Albert Dayan said the U.S. targeted his client vindictively because it was embarrassed that his companies helped deliver goods to U.S. military contractors involved in the Iraq war.