Guy Lamb, Senior Research Fellow, Arms Management Programme, ISS Cape Town Office
Viktor Bout, widely referred to as the ‘merchant of death’, cut a forlorn figure as he was led from a New York federal district court in restraints and prison fatigues on Wednesday 2 November after being convicted of terrorism, trafficking in prohibited arms and conspiracy to kill US citizens. Bout, arguably one of the most flamboyant, brazen and prolific arms dealers of the post-cold war era, had nonetheless protested his innocence. According to Victor Bout’s official website, he “may have violated some laws somewhere, just like we all have done sometime; however, he was not that arms trafficking man presented to the public by the propaganda jockeys through the media” (sic).
It took nearly ten years for US officials to apprehend the Russian national, and close to three more years to convict him. Regrettably, Bout was not directly charged for arms trafficking in Africa, where he flouted UN weapons embargoes and armed despots and warlords. Allegedly, thousands of civilians in Angola, Burundi, the Central Africa Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Sudan, Sierra Leone and a number of other countries were injured and killed by weapons supplied by Bout.
South Africa and Swaziland were home to a strategic component of the Bout’s emerging international business network in the mid- to late-1990s. At the time, Bout and his associates established joint ventures with local air charter companies, as well as transportation enterprises. One of the more lucrative operations was the smuggling of arms to UNITA, the Angolan rebel group that was subject to a UN arms embargo. The following aviation businesses were reportedly linked to Bout: Air Cess, Air Pass, Southern Cross Airline, Flying Dolphin, Southern Gateway Corporation and Norse Air Charter. Air Cess, Bout’s flagship business, described Bout on its official website as “a Russian businessman with undying love for aviation, and eternal drive to succeed.”
Bout relocated his family to South Africa in 1997, purchasing a mansion in the plush Johannesburg suburb of Sandhurst. He nevertheless drew the attention of elements of the criminal community in South Africa, and the following year masked men gained access to the Bout’s residence, where they assaulted the Russian businessman’s mother-in-law and made off with in excess of US$ 6 million in cash. Shortly thereafter Bout was allegedly fired upon whilst driving his luxury vehicle. The South African authorities took an interest in Bout’s dealings too, and the US government requested South Africa to apprehend him for alleged money laundering. No legal action was taken as the South Africa justice department citied that there was insufficient evidence at that time.
These two developments contributed to Bout and his family departing from South Africa, as well as the relocation of Bout’s Southern African operations base to the kingdom of Swaziland. But this was short-lived, as in 1999 Air Cess was de-registered by the Swazi authorities over reports of sanctions-busting activities. The Swaziland Civil Aviation Authority subsequently grounded 43 of Bout’s aircraft citing “irregular registration in aircraft and many shortcomings in airworthiness”. Air Cess then moved to Equatorial Guinea and the Central African Republic. Nonetheless, it was alleged that businesses linked to Bout continued to operate both within Swaziland and South Africa. For example, in late-2005, a Bout aircraft was reportedly used in the extraordinary rendition of a Pakistani national from Pretoria.
In March 2008, following a joint Thailand-United States sting operation, Viktor Bout was arrested in Bangkok for attempting to broker a deal to sell arms to the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) rebel group in Colombia. In November 2010 he was extradited to the US to stand trial. A key player in the Bangkok sting was Andrew Smulian, a former South African intelligence operative and a long time business associate of Bout. Smulian, who was cash-strapped and living in obscurity in Tanzania at the time, had unwittingly been manipulated by US agents to facilitate Bout’s involvement in the deal. Smulian gave evidence for the prosecution in return for a reduced sentence, with his testimony ultimately sealing Victor Bout’s fate.