The recent decision by a Thai appeals court to extradite the alleged arms dealer Viktor Bout, touted as the "Merchant of Death" in popular books and movies, raised many hopes that this important case would finally see trial before a U.S. court. This opportunity, however, may yet be squandered, as the jet meant to transport one of the world's most wanted prisoners sits waiting on a Bangkok runway for almost a week now with the extradition process stalled.
The allegations against Bout, which are well documented by Amnesty International, the United Nations, and a number of other NGOs, may yet be outweighed by the complex political considerations, as Russia, the United States, and Thailand assemble to form a Bermuda Triangle of disappearing accountability.
On behalf of Russia, there has been an intense and protracted diplomatic effort to persuade Thailand to repatriate him out of the fear of what state secrets (and crimes) he might spill once put on the stand. Though Bout has consistently denied any involvement with the Russian government or collaboration with the FSB, the personal ties to highest levels of the Kremlin, including the powerful Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, are well established.
Douglas Farah, author of the book on Bout, recently described what kinds of intelligence Bout might be able to share with U.S. authorities: "He was spotted by European intelligence services in Iran in 2005 and Lebanon in 2006, allegedly delivering Russian weapons used by Hezbollah in the war with Israel that summer. (...) He could likely tell a great deal about the Russian-led networks that continue to arm jihadi movements in Somalia and Yemen. He also likely knows how the Russian military intelligence and arms structure works, including its interests from Iran to Venezuela and elsewhere. His knowledge base, although he is only 43 years old, goes back more than two decades and possibly extends to the heart of the Russian campaigns around the globe."
Most importantly, Bout is a picture perfect representation of "one of the men" currently in power in the Kremlin, and say what you will about Vladimir Putin, he is very loyal to his friends. Even if we could discount what Bout might or might not share in the case of extradition (although his family is exposed in Russia), the extraordinary effort on behalf of the Russian government to bring him home far exceeds any reasonable consular advocacy you would see for even a moderately important man.
Tellingly, a high-ranking Russian diplomat has just published an article arguing that if Bout is put on trial, the "reset" with the United States is over, period. No Bout, no reset, no good relations. Although projected as a personal opinion, many are interpreting this article as a direct message from the Kremlin to the Obama Administration.
On behalf of the United States, there appears to be some disputes about how much they actually want to receive Bout at this point. We all recall the recent spy swap organized with Russia, which underscored just how eager the Obama administration is in preserving this perceived foreign policy success. What's to stop them for organizing another swap with Russia for some type of diplomatic concession - especially at a moment in which the new START treaty is getting tripped up?
It might not even matter: Thailand, which has rapidly been falling out of favor with the U.S. government over the mass killings of protesters earlier this year, has played the role of the obstructionist on this extradition ever since Bout's arrest in 2008. The ruling party even appears to be upping the ante, and looking for additional leverage on the Bout case to reinforce their illegitimate grip on power. In a hastily convened press conference at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand, today Viktor Bout's wife Alla read a statement dictated by her husband. Parts of the statement recounted the visit that Democrat Party MP Sirichoke Sopha paid to Bout in prison, prior to the Appeals Court decision that ordered his extradition to the United States. While denying the existence of a recording of the conversation, Bout essentially confirms the details previously reported in the press.
Sirichoke allegedly introduced himself as an aide to the Prime Minister and showed Bout the clippings of a news story describing an Ilyushin-76 airplane, loaded with forty tons of weapons, seized at Don Muang Airport on December 11, 2009. Sirichoke is reported to have told Bout that the shipment was intended for the Red Shirts and asked Bout to link former Thaksin Shinawatra to its cargo. At one point, Sirichoke asked how Thaksin was doing, drawing a puzzled response from Bout, who protested to have never met him. Through his wife, Bout claims to have refused to speculate or fantasize about a weapons deal he knew nothing about. Sirichoke is said to have left after Bout laughed off his attempt to implicate Thaksin in the illegal weapons trade.
Of course, absent from Bout's statement at the FCCT is any mention of a quid pro quo offered by Sirichoke. The context, however, is clear. What incentive would Bout have to help the Thai government in any way - and, in the process, admit his own involvement in the weapons trade (which he still adamantly denies)? After all, Bout is not on trial in Thailand, so Thai authorities have nothing else to offer in exchange for cooperation except for a favorable outcome in the extradition case.
Bout appears to have little to gain from lying about the encounter - in particular, he gains nothing by discrediting the Thai government. What he might have an interest in lying about is potentially the existence of the recording. If any such recording did exist, it would make more sense to use it as a bargaining chip behind the scenes than simply go public with it, at a time when his fate still hangs in the balance.
The question, however, is why would someone as unscrupulous as Bout not agree to go along with Sirichoke's deal, if he thought that could help him avoid extradition and the prospect of spending the rest of his life in a US prison. To us, the most plausible answer is that Bout does not think the Thai government has any power to determine his fate - in other words, that Thailand's executive and judicial branches are just pawns in a much bigger game whose outcome ultimately depends on the United States and Russia. Whether Bout believed he might be extradited anyway or, perhaps more likely, that he would not be extradited at all, he would have seen little value in corroborating Sirichoke's fabricated allegations against Thaksin. Bout simply laughed in Sirichoke's face and sent him packing, tail between his legs.
All of these different motives and manipulations from different side make it quite unlikely that Bout will be extradited, or if he is, some he will slip out and get home to Russia before he can say too much. The Bout case has proven that Thailand is no friend of the United States, much less a legitimate ally, and Washington's decision to stay quiet over the killings of protesters is unseemly. This incident has made it clear that the Abhisit government will stop at nothing to frame Thaksin - and every journalist who has fallen prey to the manipulations of this government needs to take into account why the ruling party would pursue such falsehood.
With regard to Russia, it is time that we understand that we are engaging in a reset with people like Viktor Bout - he is not just some criminal in Russia, he is part of the ruling elite, operating under their instructions, and I would be very surprised if they would be willing to give him up.
Together, there are just too many players on the board to envision justice being served in this case.
Robert Amsterdam is an international lawyer retained by the former Prime Minister of Thailand Thaksin Shinawatra to advocate on behalf of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD)