BANGKOK – BANGKOK (AP) — An appeals court in Thailand began delivering a final verdict Friday on a U.S. request to extradite suspected arms smuggler Viktor Bout, the elusive Russian businessman dubbed "The Merchant of Death."
Bout, a 44-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.
Bout says he is the victim of an American "frame-up."
Ahead of the ruling, Bout's lawyer described him as "very optimistic" and eager to get out of prison. He reiterated Bout's repeated denial of the accusations against him. During testimony, Bout claimed he ran a legitimate air cargo business and was in Bangkok to discuss selling airplanes to Thai businessmen.
"Viktor is an entrepreneur, a businessman. He's good at what he does," said defense lawyer Lak Nittiwattanawichan. "Whether or not he's an arms trafficker, you have to prove that in court. I am not personally aware of such activities."
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 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 case became the center of a diplomatic tug-of-war between Moscow and Washington, both of which want Bout turned over and were closely following Friday's verdict.
"We continue to believe that Viktor Bout should be extradited to the United States to stand trial," said Kristin Kneedler, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, which was waiting for the ruling to discuss the case in greater detail.
In August 2009, the lower court rejected the U.S. extradition request — prompting a senior American embassy official in Bangkok to say Washington was "disappointed and mystified" by the ruling.
The Bangkok Criminal Court said that Thailand considers the 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.
The ruling dashed Washington's hopes for a quick handover of Bout who has never been prosecuted, despite being the subject of U.N. sanctions, a Belgian money-laundering indictment and a travel ban.
Thai prosecutors appealed the 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.
U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Thursday that the Thai ambassador in Washington was summoned to the State Department this week so that U.S. officials could "emphasize that this is of the highest priority to the United States."
The new charges say Bout and his former business associate, Richard Chichakli, used a series of front companies 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.
Russia has 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 United States.
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 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 modeled after Bout's life.
A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers wrote to the Thai government this week warning of a "negative impact on U.S.-Thai relations" if Bout is released. The letter, delivered Wednesday to the Thai Embassy, protested the lack of coordination and opaque nature in the court cases.
"Mark my words, if Bout goes free, he'll go back to arming the world's worst," said Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), one the letter's signers as ranking member of U.S. House of Representatives' subcommittee on terrorism, nonproliferation and trade. "That's not in the interest of the United States, or Thailand."
Associated Press Writer Jocelyn Gecker contributed reporting.