Shortly after Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout was convicted in 2011 on charges including conspiracy to kill a U.S. citizen, he delivered a defiant message through his lawyers, even as he faced the prospect of decades in prison.
Mr Boot “believes this is not over,” his lawyer said.
More than a decade later, Boot, 55, may be on the verge of a fresh start, even though he’s less than halfway through his 25-year sentence.
The U.S. tried to negotiate the release of two Americans held in Russia — basketball star Britney Greenner and former Marine Paul Whelan — proposed in June, according to a person familiar with the negotiations. Swap them for bouts.
Russian officials have been urging Mr. Boot to return since he was convicted by a New York jury in 2011 on four counts, including conspiracy to kill an American citizen. Prosecutors said he had agreed to sell anti-aircraft weapons to drug-enforcement informants who posed as FARC arms buyers.
Attorney General Eric Holder at the time described Mr Boot (pronounced “Boot”) as “one of the most prolific arms dealers in the world”. Mr Boot was notorious among U.S. intelligence officials for years evading capture, earning him the nickname “Death Merchant”. His exploits helped inspire a 2005 film, “Lord of War,” starring Nicolas Cage in a parody of Mr. Boot.
Now, he may be the most high-profile Russian in U.S. custody, and the prisoner most publicized by the Russians has returned. If he is sent back to Russia, it could reignite a debate over whether the US believes “wrongly detained” Americans are wise to swap prisoners – as was the case with Ms Greener and Mr Whelan.
In an interview with reporters, Mr. Boot repeatedly Denies allegations that he worked for Russian intelligence. But Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian security services, said there were strong indications – Mr Bout’s education, his social and professional networks and his logistical skills – that he was a member of the Russian military , or at least work closely with the Russian military intelligence agency, known as the GRU
“This is also the opinion of the US and other authorities – it explains why Russia has been fighting to get him back,” said Galeotti, lecturer in Russian and transnational crime at University College London. “All countries are trying to get their citizens out of rowdy jurisdictions, but it’s clear that getting Victor Bout back is a particular priority for the Russians.”