Accomplice to arms dealer Bout handed five-year prison term

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A South African pilot who testified against his former associate and jailed Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout was himself sentenced to five years in federal prison on Wednesday.

Andrew Smulian, 71, was arrested in 2008 in Thailand along with Bout in an undercover sting by U.S. agents posing as Colombian guerrillas looking to buy weapons.

Bout, the subject of a book titled “Merchant of Death,” was sentenced to 25 years in prison by Manhattan federal court Judge Shira Scheindlin in April after being convicted at trial.

Bout has maintained his innocence.

Upon his arrest, Smulian immediately began cooperating with U.S. authorities, Manhattan federal prosecutors said. Smulian testified against Bout at the weapon dealer’s three-week trial last fall.

In sentencing Smulian, the judge said that the only reason he was roped into the case was because U.S. authorities had used him to get to Bout.

“He was a conduit used by the government to get to the man they really wanted to catch,” Scheindlin said.

Smulian, who has been incarcerated for 50 months, must serve less than a year in prison in order to complete the five-year sentence, his lawyer said.

In the operation that netted Bout and Smulian, U.S. informants posed as arms buyers from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, and met Bout in Thailand to buy an arsenal of military weaponry, which prosecutors said he agreed to provide.

According to prosecutors, Bout met the supposed FARC representatives in a Bangkok hotel and agreed to sell them 100 advanced man-portable surface-to-air missiles or the approximately 5,000 AK-47 assault rifles that were discussed.

Bout was charged only in connection with the suspected arms deal, but U.S. authorities have said he has been involved in trafficking arms since the 1990s to dictators and conflict zones in Africa, South America and the Middle East.

Washington classifies FARC, a Marxist-inspired guerrilla army, as a terrorist organization and says it is deeply involved in the cocaine trade.

Reporting by Basil Katz; Editing by Lisa Shumaker