Hunting the lord of war - Page 7

SF-based investigator Kathi Austin helped expose a notorious arms dealer and awaken the world to a key human rights struggle
The intrepid Kathi Austin
Photo by Brandon Joseph Baker

In many African countries, aviation regulations are weak and international law is rarely enforced.

"Unless confronted with documentary evidence to the contrary, Bout's associates consistently deny any involvement with Bout himself or playing any role in arms trafficking," the treasury report from 2005 reads.

US officials believed by then that he controlled the largest private fleet of Soviet-era aircraft in the world and employed hundreds of people, overseen partly from a nerve center in the United Arab Emirates, at the time a fast-growing and highly unregulated intercontinental transportation hub east of Saudi Arabia.

The Treasury report and other investigations say Bout became a confidante of the Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, supplying him with gunships and missile launchers. Taylor is currently on trial in the Hague for directing horrifying atrocities in neighboring Sierra Leone, ranging from widespread and extreme sexual violence to drugging and forcing children into combat.

When treasury officials here finally moved to seize Bout's assets and bar Americans from doing business with him in 2004, they concluded that he had received diamonds extracted from Sierra Leone in exchange for supplying arms to Taylor.

That year saw one of Austin's boldest attempts to confront the trafficking of illicit goods, on an airport tarmac in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, at that time under its own arms embargo. A UN team Austin worked with uncovered piles of questionable registration records during a surprise inspection of two dozen planes, some of which fit Bout's profile, as their Russian crews stood by, annoyed.

"I only told one or two high-ranking UN officials to get their permission, so we could be sure it didn't get leaked out," Austin said. "None of the people involved in the actual inspection knew about it until that morning.... I'm still surprised it was so effective. I'm not sure it would work again."

International aviation rules require pilots to maintain several different types of documents, but the group found that 21 planes had invalid registration papers, two had false airworthiness certificates, and three had no insurance to speak of — telltale signs of smuggling. The group determined that weapons in the area were being exchanged for illegally mined columbite-tantalite, or coltan, a valuable mineral contained in some modern electronic devices such as cell phones.

The revelation led the UN Security Council to place Douglas Mpamo, a prominent alleged Bout manager in the region, on the DRC sanctions list, along with a pair of well-known Bout subsidiaries. With Austin's help, another reputed top Bout lieutenant named Dimitri Popov made a similar security watch list in the United States.

Meanwhile lower-level bureaucrats in the US State and Treasury departments collected evidence on Bout for years, assisted by Austin, who occasionally met with them to relay information she had gathered on fact-finding missions. She testified to Congress about the proliferation of small arms, too, but after Sept. 11, the White House drifted away from a growing campaign to stop Bout.

"I don't think the Bush administration should get any credit for the fact that Victor Bout was arrested," Austin said. "I think it has to do with the DEA being insulated from the policy influences of the administration. They kept the case so secret they were able to succeed.

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