Sunday, June 7, 2009

Viktor Bout's wife breaks her silence

Alleged Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout has been detained in a Thai prison for more than one year after being arrested in a US Drug Enforcement Agency undercover sting operation in Bangkok on March 6 last year. In August, the court will decide whether or not to allow Mr Bout's extradition to the United States to face charges relating to attempting to sell weapons to Farc rebels in Colombia

By: Maxmilian Wechsler
Published: 7/06/2009 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: Spectrum

According to an arrest warrant issued by the Southern District Court of New York on April 24, 2008, Mr Bout faces four charges, including conspiracy to kill US nationals, officers and employees, and conspiracy to provide material support to a designated terrorist organisation.

Mr Bout's wife, Alla, has been in Bangkok for most of her husband's incarceration. Mrs Bout has given an exclusive interview on her husband's case, his background and what the pair have been through while awaiting the court to decide his fate.

Q: How did you meet your husband?

Alla Bout: We got acquainted in Mozambique in 1989. He was an interpreter attached to the military mission in the capital Maputo. We fell in love and married in 1992 in my hometown, St Petersburg, formerly called Leningrad.

We moved to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 1993. Viktor opened a company there employing three people at first. We lived there until the end of 2000 when the problems with the Americans started.

They approached the local security service and shortly after, Viktor was visited by their agents who gave him four days to close the business and to get lost, without giving a reason.

Viktor didn't close the business himself, but it was closed by others. After returning from the UAE to Russia he had nothing to do and only wanted to sell his planes. He started from scratch.

Q: Some in the media portray him as a Merchant of Death. What is your husband really like?

A: Viktor is a quiet, friendly and hospitable person who likes to communicate with people. He enjoys reading books and magazines, and loves poetry and philosophy. He likes cooking, and I must say that he does it very well. Viktor is also a talented basketball player and plays tennis as well. Above all, he's a family man who spends a lot of time with his daughter.

The way the Americans - whether government officials or the media - described him, and the accusations they made against him are all pure fantasy. Nevertheless, all the lies and fabrications, especially in the media, have been a heavy blow to the well-being of our family, and to the morale of Viktor and myself.

Q: Does your husband trust people?

A: Yes, he trusts people very much, maybe too much, even to this day. He doesn't want to lose his belief in people even now.

Q: Is your husband rich?

A: No, he's not! I don't know much about his money. Maybe he keeps it somewhere. If he had some, I would have taken it already (she laughed and joked).

Q: Do you know about your husband's business?

A: Of course, I know everything. I'm his wife. He has never hidden anything from me. The air freight business was legitimate and legal. The court and the public prosecutor asked me the same question. I also told them that all the company accounts were open to the public. Viktor operated the charters legally and didn't break any laws or regulations as he was subject to the police and custom controls in the UAE.

Q: For how long have the US and other international agencies - rightly or wrongly - been after him?

A: The personal persecution against him began in December 2000 after a United Nations report on Angola came out and increased after the September 11 attacks in the United States. The Americans launched a new round of media hysteria against him. We were at that time in Moscow. There was a lot of bad and incorrect information published by the Western mass media about Viktor. Also, simultaneously, most of the Russian media repeated the hysterical Western reports without verification. There was a lot of negative information published about him in Russia.

IN THE MOVIES: Nicolas Cage in the film Lord of War, inspired by Mr Bout’s life.

Every allegation piled on him was a lie, like reports in the Western media that he was helping terrorists, on the run and hiding with many bodyguards protecting him. He didn't hide or have bodyguards. Why should he? He had done nothing wrong! Viktor didn't travel and spent most of his time at home.

Of course, it was a very difficult period for me as well because as a fashion designer, my customers began to look at me in a bad way, asking me many questions about Viktor. Our daughter also had a hard time at school because all the children asked questions about her father and she was also treated badly by people around her.

Viktor gave an interview to the radio station Echo of Moscow in October, 2001, where he dismissed all the allegations in the Western media. After the interview, everybody was surprised because he didn't run away or hide but continued living in Moscow.

No police or any Russian law enforcement agency came to visit us. Nobody was interested in him. He never committed a crime nor was he involved in any criminal activities in Russia.

It was only the hysteria and rumours spread by the Western media that made him well-known in Russia. Before that nobody knew about him.

Q: How did you find out about your husband's arrest and what was your reaction?

A: I was working in my shop in Moscow on that day (March 6, 2008) when the phone started to ring and people, one after the other, said: "Your husband was arrested in Bangkok." It was a terrible shock and I didn't know what to do. After two or three days some Russian media came and I gave an interview to NTV and Russia Today television stations.

Q: It is obviously a difficult time for your family. What impact has his arrest and detention had on you and your family?

A: It has had a devastating effect on the two families. His 72-year-old mother was immediately taken to hospital after suffering a stroke. She was sick for a long time, but fortunately recovered. Viktor's father had died one year before, so she was living alone. My 75-year-old mother and 72-year-old father also suffered a lot from repeated calls asking what happened, which affected their health very much.

Some hysterical articles published by the Americans claimed that my father was a four-star general in the KGB and was a deputy to its director, Yuri Andropov, and this was one reason why Viktor married me. This is complete nonsense - my father was just an ordinary school teacher, not a KGB general!

Q: How has your life and business been affected?

A: I had to close down my shop and move to Bangkok to support my husband. My business in Moscow depends on personal relationships with clients - if I'm not there, there's no business.

I do rub shoulders with some of the most vile, sadistic men calling themselves leaders today. But some of those men are the enemies - your enemies. And while the biggest arms dealer in the world is your boss, the President of the United States, who ships more merchandise in a day than I do in a year, sometimes it is embarrassing to have his fingerprints on the guns. Sometimes he needs a freelance like me to supply forces he can't be seen supplying. - FICTIONAL ARMS DEALER YURI ORLOV (PLAYED BY NICOLAS CAGE) IN LORD OF WAR.

Secondly, I am not well now. For instance, when I submitted the petition for the reconsideration of Viktor's illegal detention in January, I was in such a state of anxiety and depression that I couldn't walk and had to be carried on a stretcher. When the first hearing was due, I couldn't even go to the court as I couldn't walk, or even stand up. So the judge had to postpone the hearing. I'm now taking tablets every day to relax.

Q: How is your daughter coping?

A: Elizabeth, my 14-year-old daughter, is attending school in Moscow. She's living alone at our home. It's very difficult for her as well because she has no mother and father living with her. From time to time my mother visits her, and I've hired a woman to visit her twice a week. She cooks and helps her with other things.

Q: You came to Bangkok to support your husband during this difficult time, what are you doing to help him?

A: I visit Viktor at the prison every day and bring food and other things for him. Also, I talk to the defence team and communicate with Russian embassy officials.

In the beginning, the prison authorities treated him quite well. Every time I submitted a letter from the Russian embassy, I was able to see him for one hour, which allowed us to talk about many things concerning his defence case, etc.

In addition, I was able to have a normal 20-minute visit on the same day. However, about six months ago, everything changed. They no longer allow the one-hour visit based on the request from the embassy. The visiting time now is even shorter, sometimes only 17 minutes or less.

I have approached the Russian government to help, and as a result a prominent Russian parliamentarian sent an official letter to the Thai Parliament requesting it help Viktor with his case.

Q: What difficulties have you encountered while you have been here?

A: I was never interested in police work or surveillance or anything like that. But after Viktor was set up and arrested, I was felt obliged to undertake some research on the internet to get some understanding of how the secret services work in general. Of course, I understand that the secret service must follow me and listen to my telephone conversations.

I was followed by Thais, for example, when I was staying at the Emerald Hotel. But after I made a trick to prove, they all disappeared from my sight (??). I haven't see them since, but I'm sure that they are still intercepting my telephone calls, especially every time I call Russia. I'm sure that I'm still under surveillance.

Besides, I have some friends, like interpreters and lawyers who have been helping with the case, who have been threatened on the phone, harassed and even offered money by foreigners who tell them: ''Don't interfere in this case, otherwise you will have problems.'' They sometimes fix an appointment with a person, whether it's a member of the defence team or a friend; anyone concerned with this case. However, no one has approached me yet.

Q: How has Viktor changed since he was imprisoned? How is he coping with life in a Thai jail?

A: He's lost about 25 kilogrammes, which says something about the conditions he's living under. Maybe they think it will encourage him to go to the United States voluntarily.

To pass him books takes three to four weeks, and it requires a special letter from the Russian embassy. He's not allowed to receive newspapers at all. It's like he's living in a vacuum. He doesn't have any information about what is going on outside. He can write letters, but it takes about three weeks to receive them in Bangkok.

He's not allowed to make or receive phone calls. There's a phone in the prison that most of the prisoners can use, but not Viktor. They have created special conditions to break him.

My husband is only on trial, and according to the law he can't be housed with people who are already sentenced, but he has to live with criminals, including thieves, robbers and so on.

At first he had some problems with them but because he's quite big and knows how to defend himself, after a couple of incidents where he had to hit some of them, they now leave him alone and treat him well. He shares a cell with 29 other inmates.

As for his medical condition, he wasn't able to sleep and was very nervous. He needs some herbal medicine to relax. He asked the prison doctor for some medicine but got only vitamins.

Q: Did you complain officially about his treatment?

A: Yes, I complained to the Russian embassy and they wrote to the Ministry of Justice, but nothing changed for the better until now.

Q: Whichever way the verdict goes, what are your plans?

A: I'll fight for his case because now everyone understands where the provocation and the claims come from. It seems to me, from information I have, that public opinion, especially in Australia, France, Germany and Russia, is very sympathetic to Viktor. When people look at the case in detail, they will find out that this case has nothing to do with reality. It's bullshit.

Q: The decision is expected on August 11. How do you think it will go?

A: I believe like many other people that he will not be found guilty. In any case, there will be an appeal, whether by us, if the verdict goes against him, or by the public prosecutor if he wins.

I will take his case to the International Court of Justice in the Hague, because Thailand should also be sued. But I understand Thailand is a victim of the Americans, who still have a lot of influence over the country.

The Americans didn't submit any concrete evidence whatsoever. What they have submitted, like photos of two aeroplanes, or the alleged handwriting of Viktor, is not evidence. It's not sufficient. Anybody can print pictures of planes from the internet.

Viktor has been accused of supplying anti-aircraft missiles to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (Farc) with these photos that they are showing. Anyone can download any kind of picture like that from the internet, including a flying saucer from mars and claim it's evidence against Viktor!

I believe in the Thai justice system, and in this case the verdict must be in favour of Viktor.

Q: How should the world judge Viktor Bout?

A: The Americans have made a movie called Lord of War and claim it is about my husband. It's not about him, it's only a movie. It's Hollywood fiction!

Q: How do the Russian public and media view the case?

A: I believe that this could be the No 1 case in the world, not just in Russia. They even forgot about Osama bin Laden because of this story. Everybody is now after Viktor Bout. In many other countries, this case is big news.

The Russian media are now following this case very seriously. I always receive calls from them before every hearing. Several Russian TV channels came here a few times to make programmes about Viktor.

Q: Does the Russian government give you any support or advice? Are you satisfied with the assistance you've received from the Russian embassy in Bangkok?

A: The Russian government does its best. It doesn't want to interfere in this case because it believes that the Thais must sort it out and act according to their own laws. I am receiving good assistance from the embassy.

Q: Where do you get the money to support yourself in Thailand and pay for Viktor's defence?

A: I've been using my savings, which have almost run out. My friends have been helping me.

Q: What are your future plans?

A: I will go back to Russia soon and return with my daughter, most probably in July.

Q: Is there anything you would like to say?

A: A lot of people claim that the film Lord of War is one of the best pieces of evidence against Viktor. If so, then I am really surprised, even though the movie is fiction, except the final part ... no one pays attention when the real offenders, both individuals and nations, are mentioned.

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