In this photo provided by the U.S. Department of Justice,...

In this photo provided by the U.S. Department of Justice, former Soviet military officer and arms trafficking suspect Viktor Bout, center, deplanes after arriving at Westchester County Airport in White Plains, N.Y. (Nov. 16, 2010) Credit: Getty Images

For nearly two decades, Viktor Bout ruled an empire of the air. He dispatched a private fleet of long-haul cargo planes that spanned the globe, shipping everything from heavy machinery to frozen chickens.

The Russian businessman is grounded now, facing trial starting Tuesday in a federal courtroom in Manhattan for what Western governments insist was his real specialty: arranging delivery of tons of weapons that inflamed violence across the world's war zones.

A former Soviet military officer with command of four languages, Bout is called the "Merchant of Death," by American and international officials in describing his suspected prominence in the illicit arms trade.

He has been banned from international travel for violating United Nations arms embargoes and targeted by a U.S. asset freeze. He also inspired the role of the arms trafficker played by Nicolas Cage in the 2005 action film, "Lord of War."

Bout, 44, is believed to have amassed a fortune estimated as high as $6 billion.

His clients, according to official investigations, included African dictators Moammar Gadhafi, Liberia's Charles Taylor and the Taliban mullahs who once ran Afghanistan. Planes linked to his network even flew supplies to Iraq for the U.S. armed forces.

Bout eluded arrest until U.S. narcotics agents lured him to Thailand in a 2008 sting operation. They charged him with conspiring to sell anti-aircraft missiles and other weapons to undercover informants posing as South American terrorists.

Protesting his innocence, Bout was extradited to New York in November after enduring a grueling, two-year limbo in a Bangkok prison while the U.S. and Russia squared off in a diplomatic tug-of-war.

For Russia, Bout's prosecution is seen as American overreach, stoking fears he will be pressed to open up about his ties to that nation's military and intelligence circles.

U.S. prosecutors will face defense questions about the sting's validity and his treatment by federal agents.

Jury selection starts today.

Bout's attorney, Albert Y. Dayan, said his client "never had any intention of transferring arms to anyone" in the sting. He added last week that "we believe that most of the reputation he has developed is imposed rather than actual."

Trying to mute the prejudicial effects of Bout's notoriety, U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin said last week she will try a tactic new to federal trials, requiring jurors to sign a pledge not to research Bout on the Internet or other media.

Bout faces a possible life sentence if convicted.

The charges say he conspired to sell millions of dollars in weapons to DEA informants acting as officials of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucianarios de Colombia, or FARC, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization operating in Colombia. He is also accused of conspiring to kill Americans.

Bout has not talked publicly in the courtroom, but defense lawyer Kenneth Kaplan said Bout has been helping his attorneys prepare for trial while he studies a new language, Hindi.

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