Russia denounced the prison sentence handed out to its citizen Viktor Bout in the United States as “groundless and biased” and pledged to seek his return home.
Mr. Bout was sentenced on Friday to 25 years in prison for conspiring to sell arms to anti-U.S. guerillas in Colombia.
However, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Mr. Bout was convicted on “political order” and “shaky evidence”.
“Despite shaky evidence, the illegal nature of his arrest by US secret agents in Thailand and subsequent extradition, the US judiciary, carrying out a clear political order, has ignored lawyers' arguments and numerous appeals in defence of the Russian citizen,” said the Ministry in a statement.
A former military officer, Mr. Bout got into the air-cargo business in the early 1990s, quickly building up a fleet of some 50 obsolete Soviet-era aircraft and a network of transport companies based in West Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and the U.S.
The U.S. government says Mr. Bout used his planes to supply military equipment to rebel groups in Angola, Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Sudan, as well as the Taliban in Afghanistan, which was the subject of international arms sanctions. But he also had some contracts with U.S. companies for hauling goods to Iraq.
Mr. Bout was arrested in Thailand four years ago following a sting operation carried out by U.S. informants. Posing as arms buyers from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, they met Mr. Bout in Bangkok to buy an arsenal of weapons, which prosecutors said Mr. Bout agreed to provide.
The prosecution called Mr. Bout “the Merchant of Death” who “constituted a threat to the United States and to the international community based on his reported history of arming some of the world's most violent and destabilizing dictators and regimes”.
However, Mr. Bout's attorneys said prosecutors failed to provide any proof of his misdoings except the taped conversations with the U.S. undercover agents.
The prosecutors demanded a life sentence for Mr. Bout but U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin sentenced him to the minimum 25 years because “it is unclear that Mr. Bout would have committed the charged crimes,” had it not been for the sting operation.
In his last word, Mr. Bout maintained his innocence, telling the court he “never intended to kill anyone”. “God and they know the truth,” he said pointing at the U.S. drug control agents who had testified against him.
Russian law experts said the case against Mr. Bout set a dangerous precedent. The U.S. had no right to arrest a foreign citizen in a third country on the basis of U.S. laws that only apply to the U.S. and to try him for a crime that never took place.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said it would “take all necessary efforts to return V. A. Bout to the homeland using available mechanisms of international law.”
“This issue will, without doubt, remain among our priorities on the Russian-American agenda,” the Russian statement said.