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Arms Dealer Sentenced to Time Served

Courts: Sarkis Soghanalian is freed after 10 months in prison on a wire fraud charge. He is expected to aid in an unspecified investigation.

July 31, 2001|DAVID ROSENZWEIG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After examining a secret government document, a Los Angeles federal judge on Monday agreed to sentence an international arms dealer with close ties to the Central Intelligence Agency to 10 months in prison--time already served--on a charge of wire fraud.

In exchange for Sarkis Soghanalian's cooperation in an unspecified investigation, the U.S. attorney's office recommended that he spend no further time behind bars.

At the outset of Monday's hearing, U.S. District Judge Ronald S.W. Lew appeared to be leaning toward a stiffer sentence, but he shifted ground after a federal prosecutor showed him the government document during a whispered sidebar huddle.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Terri A. Law declined afterward to reveal any details of Soghanalian's cooperation. "It's all under seal," she told reporters.

As an arms dealer, the 71-year-old Soghanalian has brokered billions of dollars worth of weapons and munitions over the years to the Christian militia in Lebanon, to Argentina during the Falklands war, to the Nicaraguan Contras and to Iraq during that country's war with Iran.

Soghanalian, nicknamed "the Merchant of Death," claims many of those deals were aided or tacitly approved by the CIA.

During the early 1990s, Soghanalian served two years of a 6 1/2-year federal prison sentence for conspiring to smuggle 103 combat helicopters to Saddam Hussein's military. He had his sentence reduced after providing intelligence that helped U.S. authorities break up a counterfeiting ring that was dumping millions of dollars in fake $100 bills in Lebanon.

In the current case, Soghanalian pleaded guilty earlier this year to taking part in a scheme to cash a stolen $250,000 cashier's check, a crime punishable by up to five years behind bars.

Millions Donated to Armenian Projects

Soghanalian, a heavyset man who walks with a limp and suffers from heart disease, was accompanied to court Monday by Archbishop Vatche Hovsepian, primate of the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church of North America, based in Burbank.

Defense lawyer Mark Geragos said Soghanalian, who is of Armenian heritage, had donated millions of dollars for Armenian community projects, including the construction of schools and the airlift of relief supplies to Armenia after the 1988 earthquake that killed nearly 100,000 people.

Although he once maintained homes in Miami, Paris, Athens and Amman, Jordan, and owned a 136-acre farm in Wisconsin, Soghanalian is a pauper today, Geragos told the judge. He lives with friends and relatives in the Los Angeles area, the attorney said.

Originally Charged in 10-Count Indictment

Arrested when he arrived in Miami on a flight from Paris in December 1999, Soghanalian was originally charged in a 10-count indictment with conspiring to defraud Great Western Bank in Los Angeles out of more than $3 million. Although held without bail as a flight risk, Soghanalian was freed with the government's consent after 10 months behind bars. His passport was returned to him as well, and he was allowed to travel from Los Angeles to Amman, reportedly to retrieve documents involving the sale of 50,000 AK-47 assault rifles to Vladimiro Montesinos, the former all-powerful chief of Peru's intelligence service. The guns allegedly wound up in the hands of Colombian rebels.

In its plea deal with Soghanalian, the U.S. attorney's office agreed to recommend that he be treated leniently in exchange for his "substantial assistance to law enforcement." The prosecutor told the judge Monday that Soghanalian had lived up to his part of the bargain.

Judge Lew offered Soghanalian an opportunity to address the court before sentencing, but he declined.

In addition to his 10-month sentence, Soghanalian was placed on three years' probation on the wire fraud charge, in which he admitted depositing a stolen $250,000 check from City National Bank into his Paris bank account in return for 40% of the proceeds. The check never cleared, however. The other charges against Soghanalian were dropped as part of the plea agreement.

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