Feb. 17, 2010 -- The Justice Department has unsealed an indictment against alleged international arms merchant Viktor Bout and his associate Richard Chichakli. Bout has been dubbed "The Merchant of Death" for his role in alleged arms trafficking around the world and his willingness to sell to every side, supplying dictators, revolutionaries and Islamic militants, and even working for the U.S. in Iraq.
Bout was arrested in Thailand in a 2008 sting operation and has been battling his extradition to United States ever since. He was initially indicted in March 2008 for conspiring to kill Americans for attempting to sell arms to the left-wing FARC insurgents in Colombia. American officials are hopeful that the latest charges may pave the way for his extradition.
The new indictment charges Bout with conspiracy, money laundering, wire fraud and violating the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) for allegedly trying to hide millions in profits from arms dealing. International authorities had tried to freeze Bout's assets after he was accused of providing weapons to former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who was fueling a bloody insurgency in neighboring Sierra Leone. Taylor is currently on trial before an international court for his alleged role in the violence.
The indictment gives seven different aliases for Bout, including "Boris," "Viktor Budd," "Viktor Butt," and "Vadim Aminov." It asserts that as late as 2007, Bout was still trying to form a new aviation company to hide the proceeds of arms dealing.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Bout, a former Soviet military officer, made his fortune selling Soviet-era weaponry to Third World despots and insurgent groups. Bout dispatched fleets of Cold War-era Soviet cargo planes to some of the most inhospitable corners of the earth, running guns for dictators, including Liberia's Charles Taylor and Zaire's Mubuto Sese Seko, as well as rebel leaders in Angola, Sierra Leone and beyond.
The indictment cites 15 aviation companies that Bout owned, including Air Cess, Irbis Air Company and Santa Cruz Imperial. According to the U.N. and the U.S. Treasury Department, two of the companies, San Air General Trading and Centrafrican Airlines, played a key role in supporting Taylor and the Sierra Leone rebels. Bout's payments allegedly included diamonds.
Bout also allegedly trafficked arms for the Taliban, and his aviation services were so vast that the Pentagon contracted one of his companies to deliver goods into Iraq from 2003 to 2005.
U.S. government contractors paid Bout-controlled firms roughly $60 million to fly supplies into Iraq in support of the U.S. war effort, according to a book about Bout called "Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Plans, and the Man Who Makes War Possible," by reporters Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun.
At the time, Bout was already a wanted international fugitive. Intelligence officials had considered Bout one of the greatest threats to U.S. interests, in the same league as al Qaeda kingpin Osama bin Laden. Interpol had issued a warrant for his arrest; the United Nations Security Council had restricted his travel.
Intelligence reports also indicate Bout supplied armor-piercing missiles to Hezbollah in the summer of 2006 and arms to Somali warlords.
Bout lived openly in Russia for years but was lured to Thailand by the DEA in March 2008, where he was arrested. A previous U.S. attempt to extradite Bout was rebuffed by Thai authorities, since the original charges against Bout focused on his relationship with FARC, and Thailand does not consider FARC a terrorist group. While in custody in Thailand, Bout has consistently denied the charges against him.
In a statement US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara said, "The United Nations and the United States have long-standing sanctions against Bout that stem from, among other things, his support of the most violent and destabilizing conflicts in recent African history. Until his arrest in March 2008, Bout had found a way to circumvent these sanctions, successfully evading the rule of law."
The new indictment mentions that Bout was in violation of UN Sanctions as far back as 2001 for his dealings with Taylor. These sanctions also covered Chichakli after 2005. Chichakli had not been charged previously but had had his assets seized and frozen by the US Treasury for his alleged connections with Bout.
The indictment alleges that in 2004 "Bout and Chichakli took steps to form new aviation and other companies, and took specific steps to register these companies in the name of other individuals….the defendants, created and registered Samar Airlines, which purported to be a commercial airline and a passenger and cargo aircraft charter service based in the Republic of Tajikistan."
The money-laundering charges in the indictment allege that Bout and Chichakli attempted to buy Boeing 727s for Samar airlines from a Florida aviation firm and that money from shell companies controlled by Bout were transferred to Samar accounts "in order to protect Bout's assets." The indictment alleges that money transfers for Samar flowed from bank accounts in Cyprus linked to Bout through an entity called Wartrex Holdings Limited to a bank in New York, as well as funds coming from Kazakhstan to accounts in Salt Lake City Utah for the Florida aviation company. The wire fraud charges list 6 specific wire transfers in 2007 ranging between $52,000 to $339,977.
The UN Security Council passed 11 resolutions between 2001-2004 to express concern about the growing conflict and arms trade in Liberia. US officials may cite the UN violations in an effort to put pressure on Russia to allow Bout and Chichakli to be extradited to the US to face trial. Bout's arrest and detention has created friction between the U.S. and Russian governments. Russia has expressed interest in bringing Bout back home -- for his protection, it is widely believed, rather than his prosecution.
Chichakli, a U.S. citizen who once lived in Richardson, Texas, has been on the run since shortly after April 2005, when agents from the FBI and Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Asset Control raided his home. They seized his assets and business records, which allegedly showed that Bout moved money through the US through several front companies. Agents also recovered a stash of diamonds from his office, according to officials. Chichakli is believed to have fled to Syria where he had family but he later moved since he was unable to access his bank accounts.
Following the seizure of his assets in 2005 Chichakli established a web site defending himself. In a 2007 letter posted on the web site, Chichakli disputed his connections with Bout asserting, "I Richard Chichakli hereby testify that I was not at any given time an employee of Victor Bout's companies including Aircess, Airpass, Metavia Airlines, and Central Africa Airlines in the capacity the government alleges, and I never received employment salaries or benefits from these entities."
On the web site Chichakli also addresses an open letter to the FBI: "Furthermore, should you have any questions about this case, Victor Bout, the weather in Moscow, or just want to ask how I'm doing, please feel free to call or drop me an e-mail at any time."
Chichakli is currently believed to be living in Russia according to people familiar with the case, the Justice Department said that it would be working with INTERPOL to locate and arrest Chichakli. Chichakli's attorney Clay Scott, Jr. declined to comment on the indictment since he had not yet reviewed the charges.