The Arms Addiction
Because arms brokers operate from many locations around the world, transferring money, weapons and other commodities across multiple jurisdictions through intricate channels, it is easy for courts to rule that the offences fall outside of their ambit. Despite the European Union, for instance, adopting a strong common position on arms trafficking, the lack of integrated legal mechanisms to prosecute dealers across jurisdictions has left those purveyors of death largely untouched.
These difficult legal issues are often buttressed by a distinct lack of political will to prosecute arms dealers on the part of many countries. In extreme cases, dealers are integral components of organised crime networks that include political actors, while others are (or have been) useful to powerful politicians or officials, who explicitly or tacitly condone their actions. Their apprehension could result in severe embarrassment and political-legal difficulties for their abettors. With friends in high places, some arms dealers have been able to evade arrest and prosecution throughout their illicit careers and beyond.
Notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout’s evasion of justice for many years is an example of how these issues have combined to bedevil prosecutions. In February 2002, Belgian authorities issued an Interpol Red Notice that they were seeking the arrest of Bout on charges of money laundering and arms dealing. In theory, if he was in a member state, local police authorities were obliged to arrest him and hand him over to Belgium.
Soon after the 9/11 attacks Bout’s African colleague, Sanjivan Ruprah, had been in contact with U.S. intelligence officials, starting a long-running correspondence. Ruprah was even flown to the U.S. at one stage for a debriefing, bypassing the passport and immigration checks that would have identified him on the U.S. travel ban list. He promised to provide his U.S. contact with a wide range of intelligence. This included the movements of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, which he and Bout had insight into as a consequence of supplying arms to these groups. With this new knowledge and their extensive network, Bout and Ruprah would be useful “dirty” contacts in the War on Terror.
When police boarded the aircraft it was empty except for the pilots. Twenty four hours later Bout was spotted 3,000 miles away in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Whether U.S. intelligence ever did an official deal for information with Bout and Ruprah is unclear but it is suspected that U.S. intelligence interventions prevented Bout’s arrest for many years. So deep were these suspicions that the Belgian authorities attempted to keep their arrest warrant secret from leaky U.S. intelligence networks. Belgian and European authorities joined forces with British intelligence under the aegis of a new taskforce known as Operation Bloodstone to monitor Bout’s frequent junkets in violation of his travel ban.
In late February 2002, firm intelligence identified that Bout would be flying aboard one of his planes from Moldova to Athens. A plan was hatched to arrest him when he landed in Athens and then bring him to justice in Belgium. Soon after Bout’s flight took off, British field agents sent an encrypted message to London informing them that “the asset” was in the air. Minutes later the plane changed direction, abandoning its flight plan. It disappeared into mountainous territory out of the reach of local radars. The plane reemerged ninety minutes later and landed in Athens.
When police boarded the aircraft it was empty except for the pilots. Twenty four hours later Bout was spotted 3,000 miles away in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Bout’s crew had been informed of the plan to arrest him in Athens and had arranged to drop him off safely elsewhere. For a European investigator, all signs pointed to US complicity: “There were only two intelligence services that could have decrypted the British intelligence transmission in so short a time,” he explained. “The Russians and the Americans. And we know for sure it was not the Russians.”
Extract from The Shadow World: Inside The Global Arms Trade by Andrew Feinstein. Out now (Penguin Books).