The Game Is Over
- By Alex Yearsley
- Mar. 17 2008 00:00
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The game is over" were the first words uttered by Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout when he was arrested by Thai police on March 6 after the nearly 10-year "game" came to a dramatic end. It reveals little of the horror and tragedy that his business has caused and says much about the man and his methods.
Since his arrest, hundreds of articles have been written about Bout. What has been missed in the high drama of his capture are the countless victims who have been maimed and killed by the cargo he is accused of delivering to some of Africa's, Asia's and South America's bloodiest conflicts over the past 10 years. Millions of bullets, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and AK-47s have led to many innocent deaths in embargoed conflict zones. Bout must be tried for these crimes.
Officials from the United States and United Nations say that Bout's list of customers included former dictator Charles Taylor of Liberia, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, late dictator Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo, and both sides in the Angolan civil war.
Blame for not arresting Bout earlier must be equally shared between the United States and Russia. Through Bout, the United States apparently supplied weapons and embargoed goods to unsavory regimes and rebel groups that it supported tacitly but could not fund openly.
For Russia, Bout was a cash cow to be milked. Senior military and intelligence officials effectively gave Bout a carte blanche to operate, and they expected big payoffs in exchange for granting him unfettered access to the cargo planes he used and the open access to the country's Cold War-era weapons arsenals.
Then Bout became a political pawn in a tit-for-tat game between the United States, Britain and Russia. Britain hired Bout's planes, which fulfilled certain British Defense Ministry contracts. Russia blocked a Belgian candidate from becoming the chairman of the UN Panel on Somalia because of his anti-Bout campaign. In addition, although he was living in Moscow and freely gave radio and television interviews, he was never arrested by a Russian law enforcement agency, even after Interpol issued a notice for his arrest. How many lives would have been spared if he had been arrested years ago?
The special forces of Belgium and Britain, which had organized its own audacious plan to capture Bout, were reportedly left seething when the plane that was to be carrying Bout arrived empty. He was tipped off on the plan midflight and landed the plane in a neutral country to evade capture. As one source states in "Merchant of Death," Doug Farah's and Stephen Braun's book about Bout, the United States was the only country that had the capability to intercept the secure communications of either country.
The U.S. role in the Bout affair may have been connected with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and Washington's subsequent mandate to fight the global war on terror. Later, Bout is reported to have flown on the first plane into Afghanistan with U.S. special forces as he had unique knowledge of Afghanistan's landing strips and because of his business dealings with both the Northern Alliance and the Taliban.
Was Bout guilty or complicit in the atrocities that were committed with the weapons he flew in? He says he just delivered cargo and didn't know what the cargo contained, but this is hard to believe.
U.S. authorities are seeking Bout's extradition from Thailand to the United States to stand trial, where he faces up to 15 years in jail if convicted. Nonetheless, there are some members of the administration of President George W. Bush who do not want Bout to face trial in the United States. Their actions must be closely monitored to ensure that they can no longer interfere in this truly barbaric game of cat and mouse.
Finally the cat -- in the form of the slick U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, whose undercover agents posed as rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, seeking to purchase millions of dollars' worth of weapons. -- has laid a trap so brazen that this carefree and lazy mouse sat firmly in the trap laid for him. The DEA deserves all the praise it can get for arresting this Cold War relic.
Alex Yearsley is head of special projects for Global Witness, a London-based human rights organization.