Thai appeals court rules to extradite alleged Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout to US
BANGKOK – BANGKOK (AP) — A Thai appeals court on Friday ordered the extradition of suspected Russian arms smuggler Viktor Bout to the United States, angering Moscow but paving the way to put the man dubbed the "Merchant of Death" on trial.
Shackled in leg irons, Bout vowed to prove his innocence in an American courtroom.
"We will face the trial in the United States and win it," Bout told reporters in Russian after the verdict, according to Russia's RIA Novosti news agency.
The court ordered Bout's extradition within three months, overturning a lower court's ruling in August 2009 that rejected a U.S. request that he face trial there. No further judicial appeals are possible in Thailand.
The ruling is a victory for the Obama administration, which summoned the Thai ambassador in Washington this week to emphasize the importance it placed on the case.
U.S. Acting Deputy Attorney General Gary Grindler said Washington was "extremely pleased" with the ruling.
"The prosecution of Viktor Bout is of utmost priority to the United States," Grindler said in a statement, adding his case is of international concern. "He has been sanctioned by the United Nations for alleged arms trafficking activity and support of armed conflicts in Africa."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called the court decision "unlawful and political." Without mentioning the United States, he said the ruling was influenced by "very strong outside pressure."
"I assure you that we will continue to do everything necessary to push for his return to his homeland," the foreign minister said.
Experts say Bout has been useful for Russia's intelligence apparatus, and Moscow does not want him going on trial in the United States.
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 allegedly supplied weapons that fueled civil wars in South America, the Middle East and Africa, with clients including Liberia's Charles Taylor and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and both sides of the civil war in Angola.
The head of a lucrative air transport empire, Bout has 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 claims he ran a legitimate business.
The 2005 Nicolas Cage film, "Lord of War," is loosely based on Bout's life.
Bout's nickname arose from 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 it in 2000 to single out Bout for his alleged arms role in Africa.
Dressed in an orange prison uniform, Bout stood after the verdict was announced. Tears welled in his eyes as he hugged his wife and daughter, who wept. He was led out of the courtroom and back to a Bangkok prison where court officials said he would remain until the extradition is processed.
"This is the most unfair decision possible," his wife, Alla Bout, told reporters, speaking in Russian through a translator. "It is known the world over that this is a political case."
Bout's arrest by Thai authorities in March 2008 landed Bout in prison for the first time and set off a legal tug-of-war between the U.S. and Russia.
Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent Moscow-based military analyst, called Bout a "prize catch" for Washington and an embarrassment for Moscow.
"The activities he was performing involved a lot of Russian government officials. The information he has, many parties want to keep under wraps," Felgenhauer said.
The U.S. could secure key military intelligence not only on Russia but on other former Soviet states where Bout operated, he said, adding if Bout were to accept a plea bargain, "He could really start to sing."
Bout's arrest at a Bangkok luxury hotel 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.
Bout was subsequently indicted in the U.S. on four terrorism-related charges that include 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 U.S. indictment also charged Bout with conspiring to kill Americans, conspiring to kill U.S. officers or employees, and conspiring to provide material support to terrorists.
The Russian faces a maximum penalty of life in prison if convicted.
In August 2009, the Bangkok Criminal Court rejected a U.S. extradition request. It said that Thailand considers FARC a political movement and not a terrorist group, and that extradition under a Thai-U.S. treaty could not be granted for a political offense.
But the appeals court disagreed, saying Friday that under Thai law the charges against Bout were considered criminal, not political.
Bout's lawyer, Lak Nittiwattanawichan, said he would keep fighting.
"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.
Associated Press writers Jocelyn Gecker in Bangkok and David Nowak in Moscow contributed to this report.