Thai court drops second case against Viktor Bout, clearing way for US extradition

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Thai court drops case against Viktor Bout

BANGKOK — A Thai court ruled Tuesday to dismiss a new trial against alleged Russian arms smuggler Viktor Bout, removing a key legal obstacle to his long-awaited extradition to the United States.

The Bangkok Criminal Court’s decision was the latest phase in a long-running legal battle that has put Thailand in the middle of a tug-of-war between Washington and Moscow, both of which are demanding Bout’s hand-over.

The announcement of the ruling stunned Bout, who hugged his wife and then waded through the courtroom to his defense lawyer and said: “Something now. The appeal. We need to appeal.”

Court officials told reporters that the defense was not allowed to appeal. Only prosecutors who filed the charges of money laundering and wire fraud on behalf of the U.S. have the right to appeal within 72 hours, after which time Bout could be extradited.

One possible twist: Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has said once the court process is finished he will have the final say in Bout’s extradition.

Asked by reporters how he felt, Bout replied: “I don’t know. I don’t know what to say.”

The 43-year-old Bout, who allegedly supplied weapons that fueled civil wars in South America, the Middle East and Africa, has been fighting extradition since his March 2008 arrest in Bangkok as part of a U.S.-led sting operation.

A Thai Appeals Court gave its approval Aug. 20 for Bout’s extradition to the U.S. to face trial on four terrorism-related charges that could land him in prison for life. That ruling reversed a lower court’s decision.

But the process was stalled because, after the lower court rejected the request, Washington filed a second set of charges to ensure he wasn’t set free. The U.S. has since tried to drop those charges, but the Bangkok Criminal Court said Monday the legal proceedings, which had already started, must be allowed to continue.

On Tuesday, the court ruled to dismiss the second set of charges and said there was no further legal reason to keep Bout from being extradited.

“The court has no reason to hold the defendant now,” a judge said.

Russia says Bout he is an innocent businessman and has demanded his return. Experts say Bout, a former Soviet air force officer, has knowledge of Russia’s military and intelligence operations and that Moscow does not want him going on trial in the United States.

Shackled at the ankles and wearing a bulletproof vest, Bout was escorted to and from the court by armed commandos.

When the Appeals Court cleared the way for Bout’s extradition in August, it said the extradition must take place within 90 days, or roughly by Nov. 20.

“There is a legal process that continues to unfold in Thailand, and we continue to look forward to the early transport of Mr. Bout to the United States,” U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters in Washington on Monday.

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.

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.

In 2000, a high-ranking minister at Britain’s Foreign office called Bout, who flouted U.N. arms embargoes on the warring parties in Angola and Sierra Leone, “a merchant of death.”

Bout also reportedly supplied arms to warring parties in Afghanistan before the 2001 fall of the Taliban’s Islamic regime.

The 2005 movie “Lord of War” starring Nicolas Cage is loosely based on Bout’s life.

Associated Press Writers Jocelyn Gecker contributed to this report.

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