The trial of Viktor Bout — a Russian ex-army officer accused of overseeing the world’s biggest private arms trafficker — has got under way in New York.
Prosecution and defense attorneys began the process of seating a jury panel from among 80 prospective jurors — a crush of candidates so large that reporters were not allowed in to cover the process because of space restrictions, court officials said.
Bout’s wife and daughter were among those in the courtroom as the vetting of jurors by Judge Shira Scheindlin and lawyers from both sides began, amid concerns that Bout’s notoriety could make it difficult for him to get a fair trial.
In a highly unusual move, Scheindlin said she will make the 12 jurors and alternates sign a statement swearing they will abstain from attempting to read about the defendant on the Internet or anywhere else.
Security will be tight for the trial, which could last up to three weeks.
Dubbed by US officials “the merchant of death,” Bout is accused of attempting to sell undercover US agents surface-to-air missiles and other weapons for use by Colombia’s FARC rebels against US anti-narcotics personnel. He has pleaded not guilty.
Bout was brought to the United States in 2010 from Thailand in the wake of a daring sting operation by US agents in a Thai hotel in 2008, followed by a bitter extradition battle that raised US-Russian tensions.
Bout’s New York legal team concedes that he did run a fleet of cargo planes acquired after the Soviet break-up, but insists he never sold or brokered weapons. He faces up to life in prison if found guilty.
The US government said Bout told the US agents he mistakenly believed to be FARC representatives that he could deliver 700 missiles, 5,000 assault rifles and millions of rounds of ammunition, in addition to land mines and explosives.
Bout’s extended resume — which is not directly at issue in the trial — allegedly includes pouring weapons into wars in Afghanistan, Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Sudan.
This article was published by AFP on October 11, 2011.
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