Suspected Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout to be extradited to US
Report from guardian.co.uk
By Ben Doherty in Bangkok
Friday 20 August 2010 11.21 BST
The man known as the "merchant of death", the alleged black-market arms dealer Viktor Bout, could be on American soil to face terrorism charges within weeks after a Thai appeals court ruled he must face charges of conspiring to supply Colombian rebels with weapons.
The 43-year-old Russian, who has maintained his innocence throughout two years in a maximum security prison in Thailand, will continue to fight the US's extradition request. His lawyer said he would lodge a petition with the Thai government asking it to block the extradition.
"The defence believes Bout will not be safe in the US and he will not receive a fair trial," Lak Nittiwattanawichan said outside court.
The Thai government is not compelled to extradite Bout, but is almost certain to, given the high profile of the defendant, and strong American pressure. If he is not extradited within three months, he must be released.
Bout has been in jail since March 2008, when he was arrested in a five-star Bangkok hotel in a joint US-Thai sting operation.
Government agents posed as arms buyers for the Colombian rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc).
According to the US grand jury indictment, Bout told the agents he could supply them with 700-800 surface-to-air missiles, more than 5,000 AK-47s and millions of rounds of ammunition, as well as C4 explosive, landmines and unmanned aerial drones.
Bout was indicted on four charges, including conspiracy to kill US nationals and conspiracy to provide material support to a proscribed terrorist group.
The US and UN have claimed Bout, a former Soviet air force officer, has been a weapons trafficker since the 1990s, using a fleet of cargo plans to move arms to Africa, Central America and the Middle East.
He is alleged to have brokered weapons deals in Afghanistan, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Sudan, and to have armed the forces of the Liberian dictator Charles Taylor and Libya's Muammar Gaddafi.
The 2005 movie Lord of War, starring Nicolas Cage, is loosely based on the Russian's life.
Bout, who maintains he has never traded in weapons, told his trial he ran a legitimate air cargo business and was in Thailand to discuss selling aircraft to Thais.
Last August, a Thai court ruled Bout should not be extradited because Farc was not a terrorist group but a political one.
The appeals court today overturned that decision, saying Farc was a proscribed terrorist organisation and that Thailand was obliged to extradite Bout in accordance with treaties with the US.
Prosecutors brought six new charges against Bout yesterday, including money laundering and electronic fraud. Those charges will be heard in a US court.
Thailand has been under intense pressure from both US and Russia over Bout's case.
The US state department summoned the Thai ambassador this week "to emphasise how important this judgment is", a department spokesman, Philip Crowley, said.
The Obama administration has previously cited Bout's arrest as an example of co-operation and trust between the two countries.
The Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, discussed Bout's case with his Thai counterpart, Kasit Piromya, during a meeting in Hanoi last month, saying the drawn-out appeal process was "beginning to raise questions" and expressing, pointedly, "the hope that Thai justice will not be subject to any pressure".
"We regret this … unlawful, political decision," Lavrov said today during a visit to Armenia, adding that Moscow believed the ruling was made "under very strong external pressure" and would continue to seek Bout's return to Russia.
Bout, dressed in prison-issue shorts and shirt, and manacled in leg irons, hung his head and cried as the verdict was read out. He hugged his wife and daughter before being whisked away by guards.
He did not speak, but his wife, Alla, said the Thai justice system had bowed to US lobbying.
"This is the result of constant pressure from the US government," she said in the courtroom, before breaking down in tears. "This is an unfair decision because the initial court already said it's a political case."