US sentence for arms dealer Bout 'political' - Russia

Viktor Bout (centre) shown in a courtroom illustration in New York, 5 April
Image caption Bout is appealing against the sentence

Moscow has condemned the US prison sentence for arms dealer Viktor Bout as "political" and says the case will be a priority in relations with Washington.

Bout was jailed for 25 years by a judge in New York for attempting to sell heavy arms to Colombian rebels intending to attack US pilots.

The ex-Soviet officer, who is suspected of dealing in arms since the 1990s, insists he is innocent of the charge.

Moscow may seek to have him transferred to Russia to serve his sentence.

Bout, a Russian citizen, was finally convicted last year after his arrest in Bangkok, Thailand, in 2008 following a sting operation in which US informants posed as Colombian rebels.

Sentencing was delayed twice as his lawyer sought more time to prepare and accused prosecutors of "outrageous government conduct" for allegedly entrapping the Russian.

Judge Shira Scheindlin said 25 years was an appropriate sentence for Bout's crimes given the sting set up by US officials. She also ordered him to forfeit $15m (£9.5m).

Bout's lawyer said an appeal would be made against the conviction.

'Clearly political'

Russia's foreign ministry described the imprisonment as "unfounded and biased", and "clearly political".

"Despite the shakiness of the evidence, the illegal nature of his arrest with US intelligence agents in Thailand and subsequent extradition, American justice carried out what was a clearly political order and ignored the arguments of lawyers and numerous appeals at various levels to protect Russian citizens," the ministry said.

It added that it would take "all necessary steps" to bring Bout home. In the first instance, the BBC's Daniel Sandford reports from Moscow, this is likely to mean asking American officials if he can serve his sentence in Russia.

Bout's trial heard that he had agreed to sell 100 advanced portable surface-to-air missiles and approximately 5,000 AK-47 assault rifles to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) during a meeting at a Bangkok hotel.

Prosecutors say the informants told Bout the weapons would be used to attack US pilots assisting the Colombian government.

Bout is said to have responded: "We have the same enemy."

But in court on Thursday, Bout shouted that the allegations against him were "a lie".

He told the judge through a Russian interpreter he had "never intended to kill anyone".

"These people know this truth," he said, pointing at federal agents sitting in the court.

"They will live with this truth... God forgive you. You will answer to Him, not to me."

Bout's wife, Alla, later described the sentence as a victory for her husband because it was the minimum the judge had been allowed to impose.

"I think that if she had not been limited by the boundaries of the law that exist here, the case would have been dropped," she said.

'Most dangerous'

The conviction relates only to the attempted arms sale in Thailand but the US authorities say Bout sold weapons to dictators and guerrilla forces in Africa, South America and the Middle East.

It is said he began channelling weapons to war-torn parts of Africa during the 1990s.

"Although Bout has often described himself as nothing more than a businessman, he was a businessman of the most dangerous order," prosecutors wrote in a pre-sentencing memo.

The US treasury department banned any trade with Bout in 2004, citing an "unproven allegation" he had made $50m from selling arms to the Taliban.

During the trial, his defence argued Bout was just trying to sell two old cargo aircraft for $5m.

"Viktor was baiting them along with the promise of arms, hoping just to sell his planes," his defence lawyer, Albert Dayan, told the court.

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