by Bertil Lintner
Posted March 6, 2009
Bangkok – Today marks the one year anniversary of alleged Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout’s arrest in Bangkok, a contested covert operation that has put Thailand in the geopolitical middle of the United States and Russia. It remains to be seen whether Mr. Bout will be extradited to the U.S., where he faces charges of conspiracy to provide weapons to a foreign terrorist organization.
After Canada and Mexico, Thailand extradites more criminal suspects to the U.S. than any other country in the world. Yet judging from Washington’s previous attempts to send alleged arms dealers nabbed in other Asian sting operations to the U.S. for trial, Mr. Bout’s extradition is far from a done deal.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) used agents posing as representatives of the Colombian narco-rebel movement Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, better known by its acronym FARC, to apprehend Mr. Bout in a Bangkok hotel. According to the U.S. extradition request filed last April 30, Mr. Bout offered to sell Russian-made Igla surface-to-air missiles for the FARC to use against U.S. forces in Colombia.
In an interview with this correspondent last May in Bangkok’s Klong Prem prison, Mr. Bout asserted he was totally innocent of the charges. He claimed to come to Thailand with friends “only on a holiday,” but then met the undercover DEA agents who he thought were interested in buying two transport aircraft. “But then they started talking about surface-to-air missiles, and the room [at the hotel] was raided by the Americans,” Mr. Bout said. Mr. Bout also consistently denies that he has ever been involved in illegal arms trafficking, including to war zones in Africa. “I used to run an air transport company,” he said. “Perhaps there were guns on board, but I was only a transporter. If I was guilty of smuggling guns, then any taxi driver here in Bangkok would have to be arrested if he has had a drug trafficker or arms merchant as a passenger.”
Mr. Bout presented himself as an ordinary, conscientious businessman in the hour-long interview, claiming he was only involved in an airport maintenance company based in Moscow and a farm in the Caucasus where he rears goats to make cheese for Russian restaurants. He also said he was a vegetarian and gravely concerned about the disappearance of Africa’s rainforests.
Ernst Jan Hogendoorn, a former researcher with Human Rights Watch’s arms division and a former member of the United Nations expert panel investigating arms embargo violations, questions those claims. “Viktor Bout has been named since the mid-1990s in a slew of United Nations, individual government, and [nongovernmental organizations] reports as an arms trafficker and major arms embargo buster. His aircraft have repeatedly shipped weapons to numerous conflicts in Central Asia and Africa, including U.N.-embargoed Angola, Liberia and Sierra Leone.”
Either way, Mr. Bout is undoubtedly a colorful character. He was born in 1967 in Dushanbe in the then Soviet republic of Tajikistan and graduated from the Military Institute of Foreign Languages in Moscow. Until 1991 he served as an interpreter in the now disbanded military transport aviation regiment in Vitsebsk, Belarus.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Mr. Bout went abroad and set up several air transport businesses, first in Belgium, then in South Africa and finally in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. He is known to speak at least five foreign languages, among them English, French and Portuguese. The negotiations with U.S. DEA agents took place in Spanish and Portuguese, with the undercover DEA agents speaking the former and Mr. Bout the latter.
The 2005 film “Lord of War,” in which Nicolas Cage plays the part of international arms dealer Yuri Orlov, is loosely—very loosely—based on Mr. Bout’s alleged activities. In the movie’s end, Orlov, who broke every arms embargo imaginable, walks free because, he says, “I’m evil but a necessary evil.” Mr. Bout’s life has been more seriously documented by Douglas Farah’s and Stephen Braun’s 2007 book “Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man who Makes War Possible.”
When mentioning the movie, Mr. Bout became noticeably upset: “I feel sorry for Nicolas Cage who had to appear in such a stupid movie.” And Mr. Bout—like Orlov in the movie—may in the end, too, walk free. Diplomats from the Russian Embassy in Bangkok have attended every court hearing and last April the Thai ambassador to Moscow was summoned to the Foreign Ministry to receive Russia’s concerns over violations of Mr. Bout’s rights. The Duma, or lower house of the Russian parliament, has issued a statement calling for Mr. Bout to be returned home.
There are precedents for the release of alleged arms traffickers caught in U.S. sting operations in Asia. In 2007, China released Yousef Boushvash, an accused Iranian arms smuggler after he was caught in a Department of Homeland Security sting operation allegedly trying to buy American fighter-jet parts for shipment to Iran. Mr. Boushvash was first detained by Chinese authorities in Hong Kong following the bust. But when the U.S. sought his extradition, officials in Beijing ordered local authorities to let him free, according to an October 2008 Newsweek report.
Even more alarming for the Americans, last September Thai officials freed Jamshid Ghassemi, a high-ranking Iranian air force officer wanted in California for exporting U.S. missile parts to Iran. Mr. Ghassemi reportedly wired $700,000 from a bank in Romania to San Diego to pay for the devices, which were to be sent to Bucharest. His Thai lawyer successfully argued “because the defendant is a high-ranking military officer, the United States wants the defendant so they can torture and coerce him into getting information to develop their own weapons,” according to media reports at the time.
Mr. Bout’s Thai legal teams are using other arguments to prevent his extradition. His lawyers have filed an appeal under the Thai criminal code’s Section 90, which is similar to habeas corpus in Western judicial systems. Under that section, his lawyers argue, Mr. Bout has been detained unlawfully and should be released and allowed to return to Moscow. Their other legal tack is to fight the actual extradition, and Mr. Bout himself has argued in court that his extradition would have a negative impact on Thai-Russian relations.
The case has put Thailand on the horns of a geostrategic dilemma. Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s government was close to signing a deal to buy Russian advanced Su-30 air fighters when he was ousted in a September 2006 military coup. The following military-installed administration decided to purchase Swedish JAS-39 Gripen fighters instead. But other arms deals were back on the table with former Soviet bloc countries when a new democratically elected government, linked to Mr. Thaksin and headed by Samak Sundaravej, who was elected premier in December 2007.
The Thais reportedly made overtures to acquire 96 BTR-3E1 Ukranian armored personnel carriers and, on March 17 last year, Mr. Samak held talks with Russia’s ambassador in Bangkok concerning the possible sale of crude oil and natural gas to Thailand. Those potential deals with Russia came unraveled when Mr. Samak was ousted from power by a Thai court decision and his successor, Somchai Wongsawat—Mr. Thaksin’s brother-in-law—spent most of his short tenure dealing with an antigovernment street protest movement and little on foreign affairs.
New Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is not known to be as close to Russia as his recent predecessors, and may aim to distance himself from foreign policies initiated by Messrs. Thaksin and Samak. That could yet work to America’s advantage in the Bout extradition case, which has on several occasions had its final verdict date postponed. The next and perhaps final hearing is now set for today, coinciding with the first anniversary of Mr. Bout’s arrest. Judging by the proceedings to date, it’s still a toss up whether the alleged arms dealer is finally on a plane to Moscow or Washington.
Bertil Lintner is a Swedish journalist based in Thailand and the author of several books on Asia, including “Blood Brothers: The Criminal Underworld of Asia” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).