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Accused partner of Russian arms dealer convicted in United States

By Joseph Ax

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A U.S.-Syrian citizen was convicted on Friday of conspiring with Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout to buy aircraft in violation of sanctions imposed on them by the U.S. government.

A federal jury in New York found Richard Chichakli guilty of one count of conspiring to violate international sanctions, one count of conspiring to commit money laundering, one count of conspiring to commit wire fraud and six counts of wire fraud.

Prosecutors said Chichakli deceived a Florida aviation company about his identity in an effort to sidestep a presidential executive order prohibiting him from conducting any business with U.S. companies because of his alleged ties to Bout.

According to the government, Chichakli tried to acquire Boeing Co planes in 2007 for a foreign company, Samar Air, that he and Bout operated together.

Bout, the leader of an international weapons smuggling ring, earned the nickname "Merchant of Death" for his supposed willingness to sell arms to anyone who could pay him, including warlords in some of the world's most violent countries. He assembled a fleet of airplanes in order to ship large quantities of weapons around the globe, according to evidence presented at his trial in New York in 2011.

Bout was convicted of conspiring to sell weapons to the rebel group known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and is serving a 25-year prison sentence in the United States.

Bout's case raised tensions between Washington and Moscow, which opposed his trial in the United States and argued that he was a victim of political tensions between the two countries.

Chichakli, who represented himself at trial, said the U.S. government had gone after him simply because he knew Bout.

"It is no secret that Viktor Bout is my friend," he said in his closing argument.

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Ian McGinley said Chichakli had used false identities while conducting the transaction and asked jurors to consider why he would do so if he were not guilty.

"When you clear away all of the smoke and mirrors here, it's a simple case," McGinley said in his closing argument.

Chichakli was arrested in Australia, where authorities said he was living under an assumed name, and extradited to New York in May.

The case is U.S.A. v. Bout et al., U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, No. 09-1002.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; editing by Andrew Hay)

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