By JIM HEINTZ and LARRY NEUMEISTER, Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — Russian authorities say they'll pressure the U.S. government, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, to send home an ex-Soviet officer known as the Merchant of Death after he was sentenced to 25 years in prison on terrorism charges.
The subject of 45-year-old Viktor Bout will be raised in talks with Clinton, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was quoted by the Russian news agency ITAR-Tass as saying Friday in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan.
"We are not being guided by a desire to take revenge but by the desire to ensure the observance and respect of the rights of our countryman," Lavrov was quoted as saying. "We will actively support the appeal that Bout's lawyers plan and in any case will secure his return to his homeland. We have legal instruments for this in relations with the United States."
Separately, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement: "The Russian Foreign Ministry is taking all necessary measures for the return of Viktor Bout to his homeland, using existing international legal mechanisms. This matter, without a doubt, will remain among our priorities in the Russian-American agenda."
Bout, the inspiration for an arms dealer character played by Nicolas Cage in the 2005 film "Lord of War," was arrested four years ago in Thailand after he met U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration operatives posing as agents of a Colombian terrorism group. Bout had eluded arrest for years as the United States and the United Nations imposed sanctions against him after he was accused of breaking U.N. embargoes by supplying weapons to conflicts in Africa.
Bout, estimated by the U.S. to be worth $6 billion, was extradited to the U.S. for trial in 2010 over the objections of Russian authorities. The Russian Foreign Ministry labeled the extradition "unlawful," prompted by "unprecedented political pressure from the USA" while Lavrov warned Clinton that Russia's cooperation on anti-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan might be curtailed unless Bout was freed.
At the time, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called Bout "one of the world's most prolific arms traffickers" and his extradition to the United States "a victory for the rule of law worldwide." Still, President Barack Obama's administration has insisted that efforts to rebuild relations with Moscow could weather any problems caused by Bout's extradition. A Department of State spokesman said "ripples" caused to relations with Moscow could be managed.
Prosecutors said Bout was ready to sell up to $20 million in weapons including surface-to-air missiles to shoot down U.S. helicopters. Bout insisted he was a legitimate businessman.
A federal judge in Manhattan sentenced Bout on Thursday, stopping well short of a life sentence called for by sentencing guidelines because the charges resulted from a sting operation.
Still, the Foreign Ministry statement called Bout's sentence "baseless and biased."
"In spite of the unreliability of the evidence, the illegal character of his arrest with the participation of U.S. special services agents in Thailand and the subsequent extradition, American legal officials, having carried out an obvious political order, ignored the arguments of lawyers and numerous appeals from all levels in defense of this Russian citizen," it said.
The comments came and the statement was released as Bout's sentencing judge inserted into the public court file copies of letters she received from Russian authorities before the sentencing.
She also included a letter written by Bout's 17-year-old daughter, Lisa, who said she draws support from young people in Russia who believe, as she does, that her father is innocent.
"My dad teaches me not to blame Americans for our suffering," the daughter wrote. "He says it is just a few men and women with an agenda who are to blame, and those few do not represent the American people or America as a nation."
She blamed her father's conviction on U.S. agents and informants who "were saying terrible untrue things that contributed in dark colors to the gloomy painting presented to the jury by the prosecutors instead of the real man, my father."
She added: "That painting was a pure image of evil, and it was that image, not the real man, my father, who was finally handed the guilty verdict."
The Merchant of Death moniker was attached to Bout by a high-ranking minister at Britain's Foreign Office, who had drawn attention to his 1990s notoriety for running a fleet of aging Soviet-era cargo planes to conflict-ridden hotspots in Africa.
The nickname was included in the U.S. government's indictment of Bout, and U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara referenced it when he announced Bout's extradition in late 2010, saying: "The so-called Merchant of Death is now a federal inmate."
Heintz reported from Moscow.
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