Who is Viktor Bout, a Russian arms trader dubbed the “Merchant of Death” who has been linked to a prisoner swap with the US?

The release of a convicted Russian arms dealer, dubbed the “Merchant of Death” by his accusers and whose life story served as the basis for a Hollywood movie, could determine the fate of two Americans who are currently incarcerated in Russia.

Former Soviet military officer Viktor Bout is currently incarcerated in the United States for 25 years after being found guilty of conspiring to kill Americans, buy and sell anti-aircraft missiles, and give material support to a terrorist group. Bout has insisted he is guiltless.

Bout’s 2012 sentencing was criticized by the Kremlin as being “baseless and unfair,” and the Kremlin has long demanded his release.

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According to those briefed on the situation, Bout was reportedly offered by the Biden administration in exchange for Brittney Griner, an American basketball player, and Paul Whelan, a former US Marine.

The same day, Griner appeared in court in Russia as part of her continuing drug charges trial due to her arrest in February at a Moscow airport. Whelan was detained in 2018 on suspicion of spying, and after an unjust trial that US officials have criticised, he was given a 16-year prison sentence.

Their relatives have pleaded with the White House to obtain their release, maybe through a prisoner exchange. Bout, a guy who for years evaded international arrest warrants and asset freezes, is now at the core of that attempt.

The multilingual Russian businessman was detained in Thailand in 2008 during a drug enforcement sting operation run by US agents undercover as members of the FARC, also known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. After a much extended legal process, he was finally extradited to the US in 2010.

When Viktor Bout was given a sentence in New York in 2012, Preet Bharara, the US attorney in Manhattan, declared that Bout had been the “number one international arms trafficking opponent for many years, arming some of the most horrific conflicts across the world.”

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He was finally prosecuted in a U.S. court for agreeing to give an openly declared terrorist group that aims to kill Americans a stunning number of military-grade firearms.

The focus of the trial was on Bout’s participation in providing weapons to the FARC, a guerrilla organisation that carried out an uprising in Colombia until 2016. According to the US, the weapons were designed to kill US citizens.

But Bout’s involvement in the armaments trade went considerably further back in time. Since the 1990s, he has been charged with creating a fleet of cargo aircraft to transport military-grade weapons to conflict areas all over the world, igniting horrific battles in places like Afghanistan, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. In 2004, US officials barred any US transactions and frozen his American assets due to allegations of trafficking activity in Liberia.

Bout has insisted on numerous occasions that he ran lawful enterprises and only served as a logistics provider. Due to varying passports and paperwork, his age is uncertain, but it is thought to be in his 50s.

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According to Douglas Farah, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center and co-author of a book on Bout, “His early years are a mystery.”

According to his numerous passports, Bout was born in 1967 in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, the son of a bookkeeper and an auto technician, Farah revealed to Mother Jones magazine in 2007. According to him, Bout received his education at the Military Institute on Foreign Languages, a renowned training ground for Russian military intelligence.

“He was a Soviet officer, most likely a lieutenant, who simply recognised the opportunities brought about by three events that occurred with the fall of the USSR and the state sponsorship that went along with it: abandoned aircraft on the runways from Moscow to Kiev, unable to fly due to a lack of fuel or maintenance; enormous stores of surplus weapons that were guarded by guards suddenly receiving little to no salary; and the booming demand for those weapons from traditional enemies,”Farah told reports.

In Mozambique, according to Bout, he served as a military officer. Farah told CNN that some have claimed that it was actually Angola, where Russia had a sizable military presence at the time. He originally gained notoriety when the United States got engaged in the early to mid-1990s United Nations investigation into him.

It’s believed that Bout, who purportedly went by the aliases Victor Anatoliyevich Bout, Victor But, Victor Butt, Victor Bulakin, and Vadim Markovich Aminov, served as the model for Nicolas Cage’s portrayal of an arms dealer in the 2005 film “Lord of War.”

Bout and CNN’s Jill Dougherty met in Moscow in 2002. Did he sell weapons to the Taliban, she questioned him on accusations made against him. To the Al Qaeda? Did he supply African rebels and receive payment in blood diamonds? — and he refuted each allegation.

He said,”It’s a false claim and a lie.” “I’ve never handled a diamond in my life, and I don’t like the diamond business.”

I’m not scared, he assured Dougherty. “I have done nothing in my life for which I should be afraid.”

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