Who is Viktor Bout? The ‘Merchant of death’ swapped with US basketball star Brittney Griner
US basketball player Brittney Griner was released from Russia on Thursday (December 8). In a prisoner exchange, Griner was swapped with notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout, who spent 12 years in an American prison. Griner was arrested when officials at Moscow airport found cannabis oil in her luggage in February. The arrest heightened already existing tensions between the West and Russia over the Ukraine war.
Ever since her arrest, there were reports that US authorities are mulling over a prisoner swap for Griner in exchange for one of the world's most infamous arms dealers, whose life is nothing short of a Hollywood movie.
Before his arrest in 2008, the 55-year-old Bout was one of the world's most wanted men. He is accused of fuelling some of the world's bloodiest conflicts by trafficking weapons across several continents. As per authorities, he used to sell weapons to rogue states and rebel groups in Africa, Asia and South America.
He was absconding for decades from authorities of several countries, and for his crimes, he even got fearsome nicknames like "the merchant of death" and "the sanctions buster".
A big chunk of Bout's life is a mystery as very little is out in the public domain when it comes to his early life and childhood. But reports have mentioned that he was born in 1967 in Dushanbe, then the capital of Soviet Tajikistan, which is very close to the border with Afghanistan.
Bout is a former Soviet air force pilot. He started his career in air transport in the early 1990s.
Master of languages
Bout has a gifted talent for speaking several languages fluently. Reports suggest that he used his command of English, French, Portuguese, Arabic and Persian to build his international arms empire. It is also reported that Bout attended the Dushanbe Esperanto club as a young boy, becoming fluent in the artificial language.
Inspiration to Hollywood
From arms dealing to his arrest, his life can be an inspiration for great movie directors like Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, etc. It is said that Bout's life actually inspired a Hollywood film "Lord of War", starring Nicolas Cage as Yuri Orlov. The movie was released in 2005 and the protagonist is loosely based on Bout.
In 2007, Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun reported several details of Bout's trade in a biography titled "Merchant of Death: Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible".
How was Viktor Bout arrested?
In his movie-like life, the arrest was also intriguing, which was caught on camera. He was detained after an elaborate sting operation by the US Drug Enforcement Administration. Bout was tracked across multiple countries to a luxury hotel in Bangkok.
Bout agreed to sell 100 surface-to-air missiles to US agents, who were posing as representatives of Colombia's leftist FARC guerrillas. They said they will use the weapons to kill US troops.
He was arrested by Thai police and over two years after that, he was extradited to the United States, where he faced a raft of charges, including conspiracy to support terrorists, conspiracy to kill Americans, and money laundering.
Bout denied charges related to FARC. In 2012, he was convicted and sentenced by a court in Manhattan to 25 years in prison, the minimum sentence possible.
Russia called him innocent and deemed his case politically motivated.