Thai PM petitioned to stop extradition of alleged Russian arms trafficker to US

BANGKOK (AP) — The lawyer for accused Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout filed a last ditch appeal Monday to Thailand's prime minister in an effort to stop his client's extradition to the United States.

Bout, a 43-year-old former Soviet air force officer who is reputed to have been one of the world's most prolific arms dealers, was arrested in March 2008 in Bangkok as part of a sting operation led by U.S. agents. Bout 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 in Angola's civil war.

A Thai court in August last year originally rejected Washington's request for Bout's extradition on terrorism-related charges, but after the ruling was reversed last week the U.S. moved to get him out quickly, sending a special plane to stand by.

Just ahead of the appeals court ruling, the United States forwarded new money-laundering and wire fraud charges to Thailand, in an attempt to keep Bout detained if the court ordered his release. But the move backfired, because Bout now cannot legally leave Thailand until a court hears the new charges.

Bout's lawyer, Lak Nittiwattanawichan, delivered an 11-page handwritten petition for Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva on Monday, arguing that the Aug. 20 appeals court ruling to hand Bout over to the United States to stand trial on terrorism charges was unjust.

Abhisit has said it is up to the courts to handle Bout's case, and it is unclear if he has any authority to intervene.

Bout's arrest at a 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 indicted in the U.S. on charges that include conspiring to kill Americans and 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.

Efforts to withdraw the newer charges have been proceeding slowly through the Thai bureaucracy, while officials have expressed irritation at U.S. attempts to hurry the proceedings.

"I am not guilty of the crimes I am accused of and I continue to believe that justice will prevail in my case," Bout said in a statement Friday read by his wife Alla at a news conference. He is in a high-security prison in a Bangkok suburb.

He has repeatedly denied being an arms dealer, though he acknowledges the air transport company he once ran did carry legally authorized shipments of weapons.

"The U.S. is trying to create for me the image of an illegal billionaire and an illegal arms dealer," Bout said in his statement. "I have never traded in weapons, I have never sold weapons."

Lak, his lawyer, said he was petitioning Abhisit because the court ruling against Bout was unjust and politically motivated.

He claimed that Bout's would be in danger of bodily harm if sent to the United States, that Washington failed to provide evidence required by Thai courts and that the terrorism charges were not valid under Thai law.

"The whole legal process so far is illegitimate," Lak said. "You cannot file charges without proper evidence and thorough investigation. This should invalidate the whole court ruling."