By Mick B. Krever
It's no surprise that a movie, "Lord of War," has already been made based on the story of Viktor Bout, the alleged Russian arms trafficker currently on trial in Manhattan federal court.
On Monday and Tuesday, a confidential informant known as "Carlos" - who in the past was paid $7 million dollars by the State Department for a single job - took the stand. He had posed as a Colombian rebel trying to buy rocket launchers and AK-47s from Bout.
Wednesday, a decades-long Bout confidant testified against his (presumably) former friend, in an attempt to reduce the charges leveled against him.
Andrew Smulian, a 70-year-old former South African intelligence officer and shipping magnate, walked the jury through dozens of intercepted e-mails, phone calls, text messages and conversations between him, Bout and other associates.
"Might have a deal for Boris," wrote one of Bout's associates in a November 2007 e-mail to Smulian, using a pseudonym for the Russian defendant.
Smulian and Bout were arrested in Bangkok during a March 2008 sting operation led by the Drug Enforcement Agency. Agents and confidential informants posed as rebels from the Colombian rebel group FARC.
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.
In opening statements, defense lawyer Albert Dayan said Bout had not been involved in illegal arms sales. He told jurors that federal agents baited the suspect into selling the weapons alongside a deal to sell airplanes.
Given the charges leveled at Bout, the communications Smulian conducted, displayed on a large overhead projector, were surprisingly conversational.
"Sorry to read of the latest crap," Smulian wrote to Bout in a November 2006 e-mail, after the U.N. Security Council leveled financial and travel sanctions against the Russian.
"Sometimes we have to face the reality of the present world," Bout replied.
Smulian took the stand wearing a dark blazer over his loose-fitting prison clothing. His white moustache and neatly combed hair earned him the nickname "Babu," Swahili for grandfather, he said.
Smulian volunteered to go to United States the day after he was arrested in Bangkok in order to cooperate with the government.
"I understood that conspiracy to kill anybody was a serious crime," Smulian said in response to questioning from Dayan. Smulian acknowledged that he faced a choice of voluntarily going to the United States or remaining in a Thai jail that he described as "pretty grim."
He faces life in prison, but could be released immediately if the government deems his cooperation to have been "substantial."
It was clear from Smulian's testimony that he had been well-prepared over the course of dozens of meetings with the prosecutors, a fact that he acknowledged when asked by Dayan during cross-examination.
His answers to Assistant U.S. Attorney Anjan Sahni were succinct as he explained the often-coded messages.
Weapons were referred to by turns as "agricultural products," "cashew nuts," and "pieces." Bout went by several pseudonyms, including "Boris" and "bear colleague." Russia was referred to as "bear land."
Smulian referred to Bout as "the defendant" and rarely acknowledged his presence in the courtroom. Bout has maintained a calm demeanor throughout the trial, but he occasionally appeared agitated and whispered angrily to his attorney as Smulian spoke.
The contacts between Smulian, Bout, and their colleagues spelled out the months-long negotiations held with the men they believed to be FARC rebels.
"The buyer who is not from this continent is wanting more stuff," Smulian wrote in a December 2007 e-mail to Bout (Smulian lived in Africa at the time). "All cash. Can I say we will take the matter further?"
Bout wrote back later the same day, saying "About 'agricultural stuff' all possible. What is needed??? You can proceed."
Smulian and Bout struggled for weeks to find a location where they could meet with the supposed FARC rebels. The undercover DEA agents and confidential informants insisted on meeting Bout in person to finalize the deal, Smulian said. Traveling outside of the "mother country" was difficult for Bout because of the U.N. travel sanctions.
Smulian first met with the men he believed to be FARC rebels in Curacao in January 2008.
Prosecutors showed the jury photos Smulian took from his various hotel rooms and hotel lobbies, transforming the courtroom, temporarily, into a bad family holiday party.
During a meeting in Bout's Moscow home to discuss the Curacao meeting, Smulian said that Bout expressed enthusiasm in the deal. Bout sympathized with the FARC's "left-leaning or communist" ideology, Smulian told the court, and offered to provide "instructors" in guerilla warfare to the rebel organization.
At one point, Smulian and the undercover agents were ready to make the deal in Bucharest, Romania, but Bout was denied a visa at the last minute.
In an attempt to salvage the deal, Bout suggested Vietnam, Cuba, Montenegro, and Morocco as possible meeting locations to Smulian. Ultimately, they agreed on Thailand.
"Next meeting Bangkok," Bout said in a text message to Smulian on February 22, 2008. They would be arrested less than two weeks later.