Saturday, August 21, 2010

'Merchant of Death' arms dealer Viktor Bout in tears as Thailand agrees to extradite him to U.S.

He's been dubbed the Merchant of Death and accused of peddling weapons around the world, hunted by the U.S. for 25 years.

But this morning that hunt effectively came to an end as an appeal court in Thailand ruled to extradite suspected Russian arms smuggler Viktor Bout to America.

Bout, a 43-year-old former Soviet air force officer, broke down in tears as the ruling was read out at a court in Bangkok.

Game over: Alleged Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout sits in a temporary cell ahead of a hearing at the Criminal Court in Bangkok this morning

Game over: Alleged Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout sits in a temporary cell ahead of the hearing at the Criminal Court in Bangkok this morning

Despair: Bout kisses his wife Alla as officials keep a tight grip on his arm after the court ruling in Bangkok this morning

Despair: Bout kisses his wife Alla as officials keep a tight grip on his arm after the court ruling in Bangkok this morning

Shackled in leg irons, he hugged and kissed his wife and daughter.

'This is the most unfair decision possible,' his wife told reporters, speaking in Russian through a translator. 'It is known the world over that this is a political case.'

The decision overturns a lower court's rejection of the U.S. extradition request.

The court said Bout must be extradited within three months or would be free to return to Russia.

Bout is reputed to be one of the world's most prolific arms dealers, allegedly supplying weapons that fuelled civil wars in South America, the Middle East and Africa.

Shackled: Prison officials escort Bout to a temporary holding cell at the Bangkok court today

Shackled: Prison officials escort Bout to a temporary holding cell at the Bangkok court today

His clients were said to include Liberia's Charles Taylor, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and both sides of the civil war in Angola.

Bout says he is the victim of an American 'frame-up'. During the hearing he claimed he ran a legitimate air cargo business and was in Bangkok to discuss selling aircraft to Thai businessmen.

Bout's lawyer Lak Nittiwattanawichan also called the extradition politically motivated and said he would try to keep fighting the extradition.

'I am going to submit a request to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Cabinet. I will also submit a request to the king and queen,' he said.

Bout was arrested in March 2008 at a Bangkok luxury hotel as part of an elaborate sting in which U.S. agents posed as arms buyers for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which Washington classifies as a terrorist organisation.

After his arrest, Bout was indicted in the U.S. on charges of conspiring to sell millions of dollars worth of weapons to FARC.

That included more than 700 surface-to-air missiles, thousands of guns, high-tech helicopters and aeroplanes outfitted with grenade launchers and missiles.

The case became the centre of a diplomatic tug-of-war between Moscow and Washington, both of which want Bout turned over and were closely following today's verdict.

Russia made great efforts to get Bout out of Thailand. Experts say Bout has been useful for Russia's intelligence apparatus and Russia does not want him going on trial in the U.S.

In August 2009 the Bangkok Criminal Court rejected the extradition request.

It said Thailand considers the FARC a political movement and not a terrorist group, and that extradition under a Thai-US treaty could not be granted for a political offence.

'Political': Bout's wife Alla defends her husband as she speaks to reporters outside the court after the ruling today

'Political': Bout's wife Alla defends her husband as she speaks to reporters outside the court after the ruling today

But the appeal court disagreed, saying the case was a clear cut criminal one and Bout should go to New York to answer to criminal charges.

'The court has decided to overturn (the lower court verdict). Now Viktor Bout would have be extradited to the U.S. within three months according to the extradition act,' the ruling said.

Bout has never been prosecuted, despite being the subject of United Nations sanctions, a Belgian money-laundering indictment and a travel ban.

U.S. State Department spokesman PJ Crowley said the Thai ambassador in Washington was summoned to the State Department this week so officials could 'emphasise that this is of the highest priority'.

Numb: Bout's face is expressionless as he is escorted into court by Thai officers this morning

Numb: Bout's face is expressionless as he is escorted into court by Thai officers this morning

Thai prosecutors appealed against the lower court's ruling on Washington's request.

And in February, U.S. prosecutors filed new charges in hopes of convincing reluctant officials in Thailand to extradite Bout despite Russia's objections.

The new charges say Bout and his former business associate, Richard Chichakli, used a series of front companies to purchase two planes from American firms in 2007, breaking U.S. and United Nations sanctions.

At the time, U.S. officials intervened to block the sale.

Bout's nickname arose from his 1990s-era notoriety for running a fleet of ageing Soviet-era cargo planes to conflict-ridden hotspots in Africa.

A high-ranking minister at Britain's Foreign Office first used the nickname in 2000 to single out Bout for his arms role in Africa.

The 2005 Nicolas Cage film The Lord Of War is widely believed to be based on Bout's life.