Russian businessman Viktor Bout is no stranger to bad press, but nothing could have prepared him for the media storm unleashed by the start of his trial in Manhattan on Tuesday.
It began immediately after U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin asked jurors on Tuesday to sign a written pledge that they would not turn to the web to look up Bout or anything related to his trial until it was over. She has done this to prevent a decade’s worth of negative media coverage from swaying the jury.
But U.S. media outlets and TV channels immediately started referring to Bout as the “Merchant of Death” even after Judge Scheindlin banned the use of the phrase in the trial, as it violated the principle of presumption of innocence.
A CNN anchor referred to Bout as an “international arms dealer and drug smuggler” in a show broadcast in the United States and published on the Internet. The media in the United States and some European countries have described Bout as the world’s largest illegal arms dealer before, but no one has accused him of drug smuggling, not even the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agents who conducted a sting against Bout in Bangkok.
Since 2001, the DEA has been fighting terrorists in addition to drug traffickers. It was undercover DEA counterterrorism agents posing as rebels from the left-radical Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, who attempted to buy large caches of weapons from Bout, in particular anti-aircraft missiles for downing American helicopters in Colombia.
The U.S. prosecutors used illegal tapes of the talks between these agents and Bout in Bangkok to charge him with conspiracy to kill American nationals and American officers and employees, to acquire and use anti-aircraft missiles, and to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization.
FARC is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and the EU, but not by the United Nations, Russia or Thailand.
On Tuesday, a CNN legal expert said that Bout had made a full confession at his first interrogation in Bangkok in March 2008 but that it will not be admitted as evidence, as Judge Scheindlin has ruled that the information Bout provided during his first interrogation in Thailand was “not voluntary” but given under duress.
However, that interrogation did not contain any admission of guilt. RIA Novosti has a copy of the transcript, which shows that Bout only demanded a lawyer and the presence of the Russian consul and said that he would not speak without them. Furthermore, he said that he had never believed the people he was dealing with were genuine FARC rebels.
How to explain these factual errors reported by a respected TV channel? And how to explain the fact that the CNN broadcast in Bangkok, Moscow and other parts of the world did not contain these “errors”?
Finally, why do U.S. media outlets continue to cite reports by the UN Security Council’s expert groups, which have no legal force? These reports describe Viktor Bout as the leader of a secret worldwide arms trafficking network, although they offer no hard evidence to back up this allegation. Why is this being done at a time when Bout’s trial is underway and the judge has prohibited jurors from looking at these reports for fear that they will compromise their objectivity?
The answer is simple: you can make the jurors pledge not to search for information on the Internet by threatening them with perjury but you cannot prohibit them from watching TV.
Those who are trying to influence the jurors in the Bout trial have almost unlimited resources and a “noble” goal. Even though the DEA and the prosecutors know that the bulk of the information on the nature and scale of Bout’s operations is mere allegation, they need to protect their country’s prestige. In the case of Viktor Bout, they can achieve their goal only by demonizing Russia, which has repeatedly denounced the arrest of the Russian businessman in Bangkok and his extradition to the United States as illegal.
The people orchestrating this campaign also need to protect the DEA, which spent tens of millions of dollars hunting Bout down in 2001-2008, when he was living peacefully in Moscow, and then tens of millions of dollars more to plan and carry out a sting to arrest him in Bangkok and then illegally transport him to the United States.
Some U.S. national security experts have already admitted that the DEA’s practice of detaining foreign nationals presumed guilty of terrorism against Americans and transferring them to the United States is unwarranted and counterproductive. But the Bout trial could help the DEA keep its huge budget for counter-terrorism operations.
The only thing that can turn the tide in Bout’s trial now is the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees a defendant's right to a fair trial – an honest judge, competent counsel, and jurors capable of distinguishing between truth and lies, including the delusions of U.S. agents.
The views expressed in this article are the author's and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.