Viktor Bout: Who is 'Merchant of Death' swapped for US basketball star Brittney Griner?

Convicted arms dealer has inspired a Hollywood film and is popular back home in Russia

Viktor Bout is escorted to court in Thailand in 2010. AP
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One of the world's most notorious arms dealers has returned to Russia from imprisonment in the US after being exchanged for US basketball player Brittney Griner.

"Don't worry, everything is OK, I love you very much," he told his mother Raisa in comments broadcast by state television.

Back home, the mustachioed Viktor Bout is seen as a swashbuckling businessman who was unjustly jailed after an overly aggressive US sting operation.

But Washington and the UN maintain he armed some of the world's most dangerous groups and helped perpetuate conflicts around the world.

Here's what you need to know about “the Merchant of Death”.

Who is Viktor Bout?

Born in Tajikistan, Bout began working on transport logistics after the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s.

He served in the former Soviet air force before he began supplying weapons for civil wars in South America, the Middle East and Africa.

His clients were said to include Liberia’s Charles Taylor, long-time Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi and both sides of Angola’s civil war.

Amnesty International has alleged that at one time, he operated a fleet of more than 50 planes that ferried weapons across Africa.

The 55-year-old was given the moniker the Merchant of Death by former British foreign minister Peter Hain, who said in 2003: “The UN has exposed Bout as the centre of a spider's web of shady arms dealers, diamond brokers and other operatives, sustaining the wars.”

Bout is believed to speak six languages.

His exploits inspired the 2005 Nicolas Cage film Lord of War, whose ending showed the protagonist escaping justice.

How was he captured?

Bout escaped justice for more than a decade, travelling under false names including “Boris” and “Vadim Markovich Aminov”.

But he was eventually captured after being secretly recorded telling US Drug Enforcement Administration agents in Thailand that he could arrange arms to be dropped into Colombia for use by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), a powerful militant group at the time.

He was arrested in Bangkok in March 2008 and was extradited to New York two years later.

Following his convictions on conspiring to kill US citizens, conspiring to acquire and use anti-aircraft missiles, and conspiring to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organisation, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Viktor Bout was ready to sell a weapons arsenal that would be the envy of some small countries,” Preet Bharara, who was the US attorney for the Southern District of New York at the time, said following Bout's conviction.

“He aimed to sell those weapons to terrorists for the purpose of killing Americans. With today’s swift verdict, justice has been done and a very dangerous man will be behind bars.”

But the former federal judge who sentenced him in 2011 thought his 11 years behind bars in a medium-security facility in Marion, Illinois, was adequate punishment.

“He’s done enough time for what he did in this case,” Shira Scheindlin told The Associated Press in July as prospects for his release appeared to rise.

Bout has always maintained his innocence, saying he was merely running a legitimate air cargo business.

When he was sentenced, his defence lawyer claimed the US had gone after Bout vindictively because it was embarrassed that his companies had helped deliver goods to American military contractors involved in the war in Iraq.

The deliveries occurred despite UN sanctions imposed against Bout since 2001 because of his reputation as an illegal arms dealer.

Agencies contributed to this report

Updated: December 09, 2022, 5:41 AM