NEW YORK, August 9 (Larry Neumeister, Associated Press) – A Syrian-born associate of notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout said Thursday that he would represent himself at his upcoming trial in New York on charges that he conspired to buy planes to move weapons to the world's bloodiest conflicts.
Richard Chichakli was arrested in January in Australia and was brought to the United States, where he is accused of conspiring with people including former Soviet air officer Bout, who has been dubbed the Merchant of Death.
At a pretrial conference, Chichakli told US District Judge William H. Pauley III that he would represent himself at his November trial.
The judge warned Chichakli that it was unwise to represent himself, but Chichakli said he preferred it even after consulting with lawyers about his decision at the judge's request. He told the judge that he had two doctorates, four master's degrees and nine bachelor's degrees.
"I'm a highly educated person," he told the judge. "I am the best fit to address this court about questions accusing me." He said his lawyer seemed too nice. "I am here for my life," he said. As Chichakli has done before, he said he had served in the US Army.
In a 2010 interview in Moscow, Chichakli said the US criminal case against Bout was based on "lies" and questioned whether justice was possible in the United States.
"The US made up this case for one simple reason," he said at the time, "to get to Viktor Bout." Chichakli said then that he had "never done business with Viktor Bout."
An indictment accuses Chichakli and Bout of violating sanctions by arranging to buy two Boeing aircraft from US companies in 2007.
It says they electronically transferred more than $1.7 million through banks in New York, though the money was blocked by the US Department of the Treasury before it reached the aviation companies' accounts.
Prosecutors say Chichakli worked closely with Bout since at least the mid-1990s to assemble a fleet of cargo planes to ship weapons and military equipment to various parts of the world, including Africa, South America and the Middle East.
Prosecutors say the arms have helped fuel conflicts and support regimes in Afghanistan, Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Sudan.
Bout is serving 25 years in prison after being convicted of conspiracy relating to the support of a Colombian terrorist organization. He maintains he was a legitimate businessman.
Bout was dubbed the Merchant of Death because of his 1990s-era notoriety for running a fleet of aging Soviet-era cargo planes to conflict-ridden hotspots in Africa. He inspired the arms dealer character played by Nicolas Cage in the 2005 film "Lord of War."