Saturday, March 7, 2009

Alleged arms smuggler calls Thai trial 'theater'

By AMBIKA AHUJA 

BANGKOK (AP) — A Russian businessman dubbed the "Merchant of Death" for allegedly arming dictators and warlords said Friday there is no proof showing he's the world's biggest arms dealer and accused the U.S. of pressuring Thailand to extradite him.

Viktor Bout, a former Soviet air force officer, also complained of inhumane treatment at a Thai prison that he said was cramped, hot, uncivilized and "worse than Guantanamo."

The 41-year-old Bout has long been linked to some of Africa's most notorious conflicts, allegedly supplying arms to former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. He has been jailed in Thailand since his arrest in Bangkok a year ago and is accused of conspiring to arm Colombian rebels.

Bout's extradition hearing started in June but was repeatedly delayed, with a revolving door of defense attorneys. There are at least three more hearing dates scheduled for later this month but still no indication of exactly when the process will finish or when a ruling will be made.

Shackled at the ankles with his face pressed against the bars of a holding cell, Bout shouted to reporters ahead of Friday's hearing at Bangkok's Criminal Court.

"If they say I am the biggest arms dealer — so, where is the proof?" Bout said, calling the accusations against him "lies and rumors."

"What about human rights? What about the presumption of innocence? What about rule of law?" Bout said.

Dressed in an orange prison uniform, Bout yelled at guards who tried to quiet him at several points during a 10-minute exchange with reporters in French, English and Russian.

"Enough! You've had one year!" he snapped at a guard. "You can't deprive me of my freedom of speech."

The United States is seeking the extradition of Bout, who was arrested March 6, 2008, at a Bangkok luxury hotel in an elaborate U.S.-led sting operation.

Agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration posed as rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, looking to buy millions of dollars in weapons.

Bout was charged with conspiracy for allegedly trying to smuggle missiles and rocket launchers to FARC, which is a U.S.-designated terrorist organization.

He was later indicted in the U.S. of four terrorism-related charges, including conspiring to kill U.S. officers or employees. If convicted, he faces a maximum penalty of life in prison.

"I was arrested not for committing any crime but as a result of ... a frame-up by U.S. intelligence," Bout said, in a press release distributed by his wife. When asked by reporters if he felt politics were behind his arrest, Bout shouted, "It's a theater."

Bout was purportedly the model for the arms dealer portrayed by Nicolas Cage in the 2005 movie "Lord of War."

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