Thursday, February 18, 2010

US files new charges against Thai held arms dealer suspect

By DEVLIN BARRETT (AP) –

WASHINGTON — U.S. prosecutors filed new charges Wednesday in their global pursuit of a suspected arms dealer, hoping to convince reluctant officials in Thailand to extradite him over objections from Russia.

An updated indictment charges that Viktor Bout and his former business associate, Richard Chichakli, conspired to violate United Nations sanctions aimed at stopping bloody fighting in Africa.

The new charges appear aimed at helping U.S. authorities overcome a Thai court's objections to extraditing Bout, a wealthy Russian businessman whose case has become a diplomatic tug of war between the U.S. and Russia since his arrest in Bangkok in 2008.

A Thai judge had turned down a U.S. extradition request for Bout, citing concerns that Bout's arrest was based on American evidence that he was aiding a South American militant organization that is not considered a terrorist group by Thailand.

Russia has fought U.S. attempts to take Bout into custody. Chichakli is a Syrian-born American last reported to be living in Moscow.

Bout is a former Soviet air officer who was dubbed the "Merchant of Death" because of his 1990s-era notoriety for running a fleet of aging Soviet-era cargo planes to conflict-ridden hotspots in Africa. A high-ranking minister at Britain's Foreign Office first used the nickname to single out Bout for his arms role in Africa.

After years of eluding international sanctions, Bout was arrested in 2008 at a Bangkok hotel, setting off a long legal and diplomatic battle between the U.S. and Russia.

Michele Leonhart, the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said the updated indictment displays "the extraordinary breadth of Bout's deadly criminal enterprise."

Michael Braun, who once hunted Bout as a former top DEA official, said the additional charges are not surprising given the complexity of the case. Bout allegedly used a series of shell companies around the world to hide what he was doing.

"I think it is going to be far more difficult for the Thai government to release this guy to Russian authorities and more likely that he will be extradited to the United States," said Braun.

Specifically, federal prosecutors in New York charge Bout and Chichakli used a series of front companies to try to purchase two planes from U.S. companies in 2007, in violation of U.S. and United Nations sanctions. At the time, U.S. officials intervened to block the sale.

The 43-year-old Bout was arrested in March 2008 after U.S. agents posed as arms buyers for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which Washington classifies as a terrorist organization.

After his arrest, Bout was indicted in the U.S. on charges of conspiring to sell millions of dollars worth of weapons to FARC, including more than 700 surface-to-air missiles, thousands of guns, high-tech helicopters and airplanes outfitted with grenade launchers and missiles.

The Thai court rejected the U.S. extradition request, saying Thailand considers the FARC a political movement and not a terrorist group, and that extradition could not be granted for a political offense.

Now, though, Bout faces charges related to armed conflicts in Liberia and the Congo, and the Thai court's reasoning may no longer apply. The U.S. is already appealing the decision not to extradite Bout.

Bout has repeatedly denied the accusations. He has been linked to some of the world's most notorious conflicts, allegedly supplying arms to former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

Experts say Bout has been useful for Russia's intelligence apparatus, and Russia does not want him going on trial in the United States.

Both Bout and Chichakli were targeted with financial sanctions by the U.S Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control in 2004 for their involvement with Taylor's regime.

Federal agents seized Chichakli's assets during a raid at his suburban Dallas office and banned any financial dealings with several of his firms. Chichakli fled the U.S. soon afterwards and turned up in Moscow, waging a long-distance campaign to overturn the Treasury sanctions. A U.S. court has kept the sanctions in place.

Chichakli, a Syrian-born emigre to the U.S. who spent several years in the U.S. Army before becoming a Texas-based accountant, has worked off and on with Bout since the early 1990s. At the time, Chichakli headed a duty-free zone in the emirate of Sharjah and Bout based a large fleet of cargo planes at the nearby airport.

Chichakli has cited his business and personal relationship with Bout on a Web site he has maintained and in numerous interviews. Treasury officials also cited a 2000 Chichakli resume in which he identified himself as controller and chief financial officer of several air cargo firms that have been long associated with Bout's business empire.

Associated Press writer Stephen Braun contributed to this report.

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