The trial began today for reputed Russian arms smuggler Viktor Bout
Viktor Bout, the alleged Russian arms dealer described as "one of the most dangerous men" in the world, went on trial Tuesday in New York.
The former Soviet military officer is accused of attempting to sell a huge arsenal including hundreds of surface-to-air missiles to US agents in Thailand posing as members of Colombia's FARC leftist guerrilla organization.
Federal Judge Shira Scheindlin oversaw the start of jury selection from a pool of about 80 prospective jurors -- a crush of candidates so large that reporters were not initially allowed in to cover the process because of space restrictions, court officials said.
Bout's wife and daughter sat in the back of the wood-paneled courtroom as Scheindlin instructed jurors that those selected would hear a case involving references to powerful weapons, FARC, and foreign locales, including Russia, Africa and Colombia.
The mustachioed Russian has pleaded not guilty. Although his New York legal team concedes he did run a fleet of cargo planes, he has insisted he never sold or brokered so much as a single bullet.
He faces up to life in prison if convicted.
Much thinner and more pale than at the time of his 2008 arrest in Thailand, Bout wore a dark suit, white shirt and blue tie. It was the first time he has been seen in his own clothes, rather than prison garb, since he was extradited to the United States in 2010.
He remained serious faced through most of the proceedings, occasionally turning to look at the jury pool and to nod and signal to his wife and daughter.
Defense lawyers and Scheindlin have expressed concern that Bout may be so notorious and his alleged crimes so colorful that it may be difficult to ensure an impartial jury.
The concern prompted the judge to take the highly unusual decision of making jurors sign a statement swearing they will abstain from researching Bout's case while serving.
That instruction is given in every trial to prevent jurors from adding their own knowledge of a case to what's presented in court, but it is nearly always made orally.
Although Bout was the most discreet of figures in the shady transport business he admits he commanded in Africa, his notoriety has grown since to near legendary levels.
A violence-filled movie, "Lord of War," starring Hollywood actor Nicholas Cage, was inspired by Bout's life, while the chief US Drug Enforcement Agency agent who organized the sting in Thailand told CBS television that the defendant is "one of the most dangerous men on the face of the earth."
A book about him was titled "Merchant of Death."
The charges against Bout in New York are hair-raising by themselves. According to the US government, Bout enthusiastically told the US agents he mistakenly believed to be FARC representatives that he could deliver 700 anti-aircraft missiles, 5,000 assault rifles and millions of rounds of ammunition, in addition to land mines and explosives.
The weapons were supposedly being sought to enable the FARC to down American military helicopters operating in Colombia.
Bout's more extended resume -- which is not directly at issue in the trial -- allegedly includes pouring weapons into wars in Afghanistan, Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Sudan.
"Those Russian aircraft were built like flying dump trucks. He could move this stuff and drop it with pinpoint accuracy to any desert, to any jungle, to any other remote place in the world. Right into the hands of what I refer to as the potpourri of global scum," DEA agent Michael Braun told CBS.
On Tuesday, the judge told prospective jurors they would hear evidence that could easily come from the pages of a spy thriller.
This would include testimony about "armor-piercing rocket launchers, AK-47 firearms ... and ultra-light airplanes that may be fitted with grenades," Scheindlin said.
"You will hear that many years ago Mr. Bout may have been involved in arms trafficking and/or arms transportation in Africa and that activity did not violate US laws."
Scheindlin also noted that prosecution witnesses would include a paid informant and a former comrade of Bout's who pleaded guilty and was cooperating with the US government.
One key prosecution witness is a former operative of the South African military during the apartheid regime who was caught on tape boasting that he'd "mowed down" blacks.
The trial is expected to run at least through late October.