BANGKOK – Reputed Russian arms smuggler Viktor Bout's long-awaited extradition to the U.S. hit another delay Monday when a Thai court ruled that it needs to consider other charges filed against him by Washington.
The ruling by the Bangkok Criminal Court is another blow to the U.S., which had expected Bout's rapid extradition after a Thai appeals court gave its approval on Aug. 20. He faces trial in the U.S. on four terrorism-related charges and could face life in prison.
The delay stems from a second set of charges filed against Bout by Washington as a precautionary measure to secure his extradition, a move that is now ironically stalling the process and could even scuttle it if there are long legal delays.
The criminal court said it would rule Tuesday on whether Bout should face extradition on the new charges of money laundering and wire fraud, noting the decision can be appealed.
Bout, a 43-year-old former Soviet air force officer, is reputed to be one of the world's most prolific arms dealers. He has been jailed in Bangkok since March 2008 when a U.S.-led sting operation ended years of searching for the elusive Russian who has been referred to as "The Merchant of Death."
Dressed in an orange prison uniform and shackled at the ankles, Bout said the latest ruling would give him more time to battle the U.S. extradition request.
"There is enough time now to prove that the charges in my first case were biased and unfounded," Bout told Russia's ITAR-Tass.
His wife Alla Bout said "now it is absolutely clear to everyone that the case is absolutely political," ITAR-Tass reported.
The case has plunged Thailand into a diplomatic dilemma, with Washington demanding Bout's extradition to face terrorism charges and Moscow demanding his release, saying Bout is an innocent businessman. Experts say Bout has knowledge of Russia's military and intelligence operations and Moscow does not want him to go on trial in the United States.
The Appeals Court that ordered Bout's extradition on Aug. 20 reversed a lower court's decision from a year earlier. Rescinding the second set of charges that had been filed by the U.S. initially appeared to be a technicality. Washington submitted its request in late August to the Thai Foreign Ministry to drop the charges.
However, under Thai law a defendant has the right to object to charges against him being dropped — a stance that Bout's lawyer openly said he would take as a way to stall the extradition.
The court said in its Monday ruling "the legal procedure will resume" because Bout objected to the charges being dropped.
Long legal delays could scuttle the extradition entirely. When the Appeals Court cleared the way for Bout's extradition in August it said the extradition must take place within three months, or roughly by Nov. 20.
"There is a legal process that continues to unfold in Thailand and we continue to look forward to the early transport of Mr. Bout to the United States," U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters in Washington on Monday.
Bout arrived at court with a dozen armed commandoes, apparently reflecting new concerns for his safety. He wore a flak jacket to court for the first time, in addition to his standard ankle shackles. The Russian was also driven to court in his own security van, rather than riding with other prisoners.
Bout's high-profile arrest at a Bangkok luxury hotel in March 2008 was 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 organization.
The head of a lucrative air transport empire, Bout long evaded U.N. and U.S. sanctions aimed at blocking his financial activities and restricting his travel. He has denied any involvement in illicit activities and said he ran a legitimate business.
The 2005 movie "Lord of War" starring Nicolas Cage is loosely based on Bout's life. He allegedly supplied weapons that fueled civil wars in South America, the Middle East and Africa, with clients including Liberia's Charles Taylor, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and both sides of the civil war in Angola.
Bout asserted his claims of innocence in a letter to the Thai Parliament, distributed to reporters Monday by his wife.
"I have never sold weapons to anybody," Bout said in the letter, which called for a parliamentary investigation to review his case. "It has become apparent to me that the Appeals Court decision to extradite me was taken under political pressure."
Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said last week he would have the final say in the politically sensitive case, once it works its way through the courts.
Associated Press Writers Jocelyn Gecker in Bangkok and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.