'Merchant of Death' witness gets 5-year sentence

May 24, 2012 - 12:05 AM

NEW YORK (AP) — A South African businessman who helped put a notorious Russian arms dealer known as The Merchant of Death behind bars for 25 years was rewarded on Wednesday with a five-year prison term for charges stemming from the same U.S. sting operation.

The sentence means Andrew Smulian will be a free man within a few months, having been in custody continuously since his arrest in 2008.

Before hearing his fate, Smulian told a judge in federal court in Manhattan that he regretted ever getting involved in a deal to arm South American terrorists with Victor Bout that turned out to be an elaborate Drug Enforcement Administration sting.

"I would like to say that I categorically accept full responsibility for my own misconduct," Smulian said.

Before U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin imposed the sentence, prosecutors told her that the 71-year-old Smulian deserved credit for immediately deciding to cooperate, pleading guilty to conspiracy charges and becoming a key government witness at Bout's trial last year.

The judge described Smulain as a relatively harmless dupe — "a conduit the government used to get to the man they really wanted to catch."

The real catch was a former Soviet military officer who for two decades built a worldwide air cargo operation, amassing a fleet of more than 60 transport planes, hundreds of companies and a fortune reportedly in excess of $6 billion — exploits that were the main inspiration for the Nicholas Cage film "Lord of War."

Bout's aircraft flew from Afghanistan to Angola, carrying everything from raw minerals to gladiolas, drilling equipment to frozen fish. But the network's specialty, according to authorities, was black market arms — assault rifles, ammunition, anti-aircraft missiles, helicopter gunships and a full range of sophisticated weapons systems, almost always sourced from Russian stocks or from Eastern European factories.

At the urging of a confidential informant, Smulian — who knew Bout when both were in the aviation business — unwittingly approached Bout in Moscow about supplying weapons on the black market to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

Bout was told that the group wanted to use drug-trafficking proceeds to pay for surface-to-air missiles and other weapons, making it clear it wanted to attack helicopter pilots and other Americans in Colombia, prosecutors said.

Neither man knew at the time that the two FARC officials they were dealing with were undercover informants working for the DEA, Smulian testified at trial.

At first, Bout dismissed the idea of a deal, Smulian testified.

"He said he didn't deal with drug dealers," Smulian said.

Smulian testified that Bout overcame his doubts and agreed that for a down payment of $20 million he would arrange for cargo planes to air-drop 100 tons of weapons into Colombia.

Bout finalized the phony deal with the two DEA informants in a bugged hotel room in Bangkok before he and Smulian were arrested.

Throughout the case, Bout maintained he was a legitimate businessman who wasn't selling arms when the American operatives came knocking. Scheindlin sentenced him in April to 25 years in prison.