Reputed Russian arms smuggler in Thai court for crucial hearing as US awaits extradition

By Kinan Suchaovanich, AP
Sunday, October 3, 2010

Viktor Bout wears flak jacket to Bangkok court

BANGKOK — Alleged Russian arms smuggler Viktor Bout arrived at a Bangkok court Monday in a bulletproof vest for a crucial hearing that could finally determine if he will be extradited to the United States.

Bout, a 43-year-old former Soviet air force officer, is reputed to be one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers. He has been jailed in Bangkok since March 2008 when a U.S.-led sting operation ended years of searching for the elusive Russian who has been referred to as “The Merchant of Death.”

The case has plunged Thailand into a diplomatic dilemma, with Washington demanding Bout’s extradition to face terrorism charges and Moscow demanding his release, saying Bout is an innocent businessman. Experts say Bout has knowledge of Russia’s military and intelligence operations and Moscow does not want him to go on trial in the United States.

Bout arrived at court Monday with a dozen armed commandoes, apparently reflecting new concerns for his safety. He wore a flak jacket to court for the first time, in addition to his standard ankle shackles. The Russian was also driven to court in his own security van, rather than riding with other prisoners.

Asked if he expected a fair trial in the U.S., Bout shouted to reporters from a holding cell: “No! For sure no! Which fair trial are you talking about?”

An Appeals Court ordered Bout’s extradition on Aug. 20, reversing a lower court’s decision from a year earlier. But a second set of charges filed by the U.S. between the two rulings have caused a legal bottleneck that blocked his immediate extradition.

Thai prosecutors Monday are formally requesting the extra charges be dropped, at Washington’s request. The Bangkok Criminal Court must then rule whether or not to dismiss the new charges of money laundering and wire fraud.

There’s one possible twist: Under Thai law a defendant has the right to object to charges against him being dropped. That means Bout could object to dropping the charges as a way to stall his extradition, a stance that his lawyer has said he will take.

If that happens, Bout could delay the extradition or — if a legal process drags on — scuttle it entirely.

When the Appeals Court cleared the way for Bout’s extradition in August it said the extradition must take place within three months, or roughly by Nov. 20.

Bout’s high-profile arrest at a Bangkok luxury hotel in March 2008 was part of an elaborate sting in which U.S. agents posed as arms buyers for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which Washington classifies as a terrorist organization.

Bout was subsequently indicted in the U.S. on four terrorism-related charges and faces a maximum penalty of life in prison if convicted.

The head of a lucrative air transport empire, Bout long evaded U.N. and U.S. sanctions aimed at blocking his financial activities and restricting his travel. He has denied any involvement in illicit activities and said he ran a legitimate business.

The 2005 movie “Lord of War” starring Nicolas Cage is loosely based on Bout’s life. He allegedly supplied weapons that fueled civil wars in South America, the Middle East and Africa, with clients including Liberia’s Charles Taylor, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and both sides of the civil war in Angola.

Bout asserted his claims of innocence in a letter to the Thai Parliament, distributed to reporters Monday by his wife.

“I have never sold weapons to anybody,” Bout said in the letter, which called for a parliamentary investigation to review his case. “It has become apparent to me that the Appeals Court decision to extradite me was taken under political pressure.”

Alla Bout, his wife, wrote a separate letter to Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva asking him to block the extradition. She said her husband has been wrongly labeled as “the biggest illicit weapons dealer in the world” and urged Abhisit “not to allow the propaganda tricks and open pressure on the part of the U.S. to effect your decisions.”

Abhisit said last week he would have the final say in the politically sensitive case, once it works its way through the courts.

Associated Press Writer Jocelyn Gecker contributed to this report.

will not be displayed