‘Bout Time

Summer vacations are over, the Labor Day holiday has come and is long gone, lumpen proletariat and kapitalists alike are back to their thankless toil, so the praetorian guard and awful machinery of justice must demonstrate its might.  What the hell is Lunghu talkin’ ’bout?  Viktor Bout, that’s what!

That’s right, the Merchant of Menace is back in the news.  Sort of.  After a motion hearing here and there, jury selection has begun in the terrorism conspiracy trial of Viktor Bout.  The trial itself won’t start until October 11th, so there’s plenty of time to review (scant) recent developments, speculate about the future, and generally refresh our collective recollection of the ongoing drama  … on several of its many levels.

  • In a mid-August ruling on the admissibility of evidence, Judge Shira Scheindlin warned “that she would not allow [prosecution] mention of countries like Libya, Liberia and Rwanda … because references to those nations could prejudice the jury.”  However, “certain witnesses would be allowed to testify that Mr. Bout directed pilots to deliver weapons and ammunition to Angola and the Congo in the 1990s.
  • During the same hearing, Judge Scheindlin ruled thatsome of the statements made by Bout during his arrest in the US-Thai sting operation had been coerced with threats and therefore could not be used in the trial.
  • Jury selection began after Labor Day (and is still under way).   Finding ‘impartial’ jurors untainted by media hyperbole may be difficult:   “This is an easy case to Google.  All you have to do is get the spelling right,” remarked Judge Scheindlin when reviewing motions by defense and prosecution about how jury selection should proceed.  [ Perhaps it’s not all that big a problem:  as many as one-third of Americans are believed to be functionally illiterate.  That spelling thing might just be an insurmountable obstacle.]
  • Ultimately, “Scheindlin ruled on the dozens of questions that will be [ asked of ] jurors in an attempt to weed out bias against [Bout].  Questions to the jury pool will include details on [ potential jurors’ ] ties to Russia and Colombia.
  • Scheindlin ruled against prosecutors who wanted to show the jury an Instant Messenger exchange in which Bout and an unidentified correspondent known only as ‘Think Big’ discussed anti-aircraft missiles.  “I have no idea who ‘Think Big’ is,” the judge said.  [ Really, Shira?  Lunghu has a pretty good idea who ‘Think Big’ might be.  Not so much an exact name as a general occupation, mind you, but still … ]

The biggest news about the Bout trial is that it’s not news:  there has been very little media coverage of these pre-trial judicial proceedings.  You can see for yourself by Googling the story, just as Judge Scheindlin suggests:  only RIA Novosti, Agence France Presse and the New York Times have had stories on the topic during the past two months.  In a way, that’s not surprising.  Preliminary motions aren’t exciting or sensational, so why bother?  And for all Lunghu knows, there’s also a gentlemen’s agreement among the New York press not to provide any grounds for future claims that prejudicial media coverage impaired the fairness and impartiality of jury deliberations.  Gotta make sure a conviction sticks if your reporters want to continue getting the inside scoop from the US Attorney’s Office SDNY.

In any case, the pace of this trial may not be entirely dictated by a moral imperative to exact swift justice for a grievous wrong.  Lunghu thinks there are grounds to consider the possibility that the Bout trial has been timed to affect (no, he didn’t use the term ‘destabilize’) the presidential election process in Russia.  If Viktor Bout has embarrassing (or incriminating) things to say about prominent members of Russia’s siloviki, the United Russia party (aka Vladimir Putin) has to be concerned about nominating candidates susceptible to American judicial blackmail or economic sanctions.  Whether you’re concerned about losing the ‘prestigious’ Confucius Prize to the Panchen Lama, or having your ill-gotten billions frozen in Swiss banks, it can’t be fun to wonder what Viktor Bout might be saying about you in New York.

Since Lunghu thinks Bout may have already said quite a bit, it is not entirely surprising that United Russia has not yet declared its choice of Presidential candidate.  Instead, Medvedev and Putin have spent the past several months dropping non-hints that provide no real indication of their actual intentions.  On the one hand, this gives the opposition (such as it is) nothing to run against except things-as-they-are, but on the other hand this persistent ambiguity and political uncertainty makes a lot of people nervous (even within United Russia).  Those Russians who believe that Dimi and Vladi are genuine rivals have to agonize over which side to choose (while being ready to jump to the other side of the fence at a moment’s notice).  Others, who see Medvedev and Putin as the true tandem they often claim to be, either wish them both gone (the opposition view), or hope they’ll rule Russia for another century (the siloviki).

Lately, even Putin has had to implicitly acknowledge that the ol’ one-two-rope-a-dope has become a bit threadbare.  Hence the most recent development in Russia’s ongoing election saga farce:  last week Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin (Vladi’s personal money-launderer?) told journalists that he’s ready (if asked) to serve as Prime Minister in the next administration.  Kudrin even donned the mantle of reformer (Russian-style) for the occasion:

“If reforms need to be carried out, I am ready to work with a government that is headed by a person who is ready to do that,” Kudrin told the Reuters Russia Investment Summit. “But I repeat, I will work [with the government] only if reforms are carried out.”

He said that it is necessary to seriously conduct reform of housing and public utilities, engage in the protection of property rights, [institute] more objective arbitration of disputes, reduce the state’s share in businesses, [carry out reductions in] public administration functions, and increase the authority and independence of [Russia’s] regions and municipalities. Reform must begin with strategic planning, which will assess the options: to raise taxes or cut spending.

Itar-Tass solemnly noted that United Russia’s deputies in the Duma “very much dislike Kudrin and have constantly criticized his actions (e.g., raising taxes and the retirement age).  [However,] if Putin becomes president and nominates Kudrin, United Russia will hardly reject him, a high-ranking government official said.”   [ Hint, hint. ]

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

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