By Nate Raymond
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout urged a U.S. appeals court on Thursday to reverse his 2011 conviction for conspiracy to kill Americans, arguing he was a victim of a "vindictive" prosecution.
Albert Dayan, a lawyer for Bout, said there was no legitimate law enforcement reason for targeting a man he claimed evidence showed was no longer in the arms business.
Bout, 46, is serving a 25-year prison sentence for conspiring to sell arms to people he thought were Colombian rebels who intended to kill U.S. soldiers. His case has strained relations between Washington and Moscow, which has demanded the return of the onetime Soviet air force officer.
Bout, the subject of the book "Merchant of Death" and the inspiration for Nicholas Cage's character in the 2005 movie "Lord of War," supplied military-grade weaponry to conflict zones around the world, according to prosecutors.
He was arrested in Bangkok in 2008 in a sting operation in which U.S. informants posed as representatives of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
Prosecutors said Bout demonstrated an intent to sell a massive arsenal of weaponry to FARC to use against American personnel in Colombia. He was extradited to New York in 2010.
A jury found him guilty in November 2011 on two counts of conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals and officers of the United States, and one count each of conspiracy to sell anti-aircraft missiles and providing material support to a terrorist organization.
In his appeal, Bout contends he was convicted on an "non-crime" in a case initiated by the National Security Agency or White House and carried out by the DEA for political reasons.
"It's seldom the DEA receives orders from the White House to deliver someone's head on a silver platter," Dayan said at a hearing before the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday.
Anjan Sahni, a lawyer for the Justice Department, said the U.S. government had targeted Bout, but for legitimate reasons, namely "because of the very clear and present danger he posed."
While Bout's lawyer said his client had given up arms dealing by the time of the sting, Sahni said evidence showed he had at the time been engaged in potential deals in places such as Libya and Tanzania.
"There's not remotely any abuse of discretion in this case," Sahni said.
Members of the three-judge appellate panel posed a series of seemingly skeptical questions to arguments by Dayan.
"Why are these weapons being sold?" Circuit Judge Danny Chin asked. "Isn't it the logical conclusion they're being sold to kill someone?"
(Reporting by Nate Raymond. Editing by Andre Grenon)