Viktor Bout, 'Merchant of Death' arms dealer, faces US terrorism charges

Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer ordered extradited to the US from Thailand Friday, is accused of conspiring to provide millions in military-grade weapons to Colombia's FARC guerilla group.

Sukree Sukplang/Reuters
Viktor Bout, a suspected Russian arms dealer, stands in a holding cell at a Bangkok criminal court on Friday.

An appeals court in Thailand on Friday ordered the extradition of a Russian arms merchant wanted in the US on terrorism charges for allegedly plotting to provide missiles and other military assistance to a Colombia-based guerilla group.

Viktor Bout, sometimes called the “Merchant of Death,” is wanted on federal charges that he conspired to provide millions of dollars worth of military-grade weapons – including 800 anti-aircraft missiles – to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Mr. Bout is alleged to be one of the world’s most active black market arms traders, with an international network of 30 front companies, a fleet of cargo planes, and ready access to stockpiles of Russian arms.

According to US officials, arms sold or brokered by Bout have helped fuel conflicts in Afghanistan, Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and the Sudan.

Upon hearing the court’s decision, Bout told reporters that he would face trial in the US and “win it,” according to Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency.

His extradition comes after a long legal fight in Thailand to prevent his being sent to the US to stand trial. Bout’s lawyer said the charges were politically motivated by the US government.

He was arrested in Bangkok on March 6, 2008, where he had allegedly traveled to meet with undercover operatives of the Drug Enforcement Administration posing as FARC weapons buyers.

Bout denies that he was in Bangkok to sell weapons.

Because the US State Department has designated FARC as a terrorist organization, Bout’s indictment includes charges that he conspired with a foreign terrorist group to kill Americans citizens and officials, and that he conspired to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization.

If convicted on all four counts in his indictment he faces up to life in prison, $10 million in fines, and forfeiture of any assets linked to the alleged conspiracy.

In August 2009, a criminal court in Bangkok agreed with Bout’s lawyer and blocked his transfer to the US. The Thai court said FARC is a political/military group, not a terrorist organization. That decision was overturned on Friday by the Thai appeals court.

"We are extremely pleased that the appeals court in Thailand has granted the extradition,” said Acting Deputy Attorney General Gary Grindler.

"The prosecution of Viktor Bout is of the utmost priority to the United States, but the criminal charges he faces are not solely an American concern,” Grindler said. “He has been sanctioned by the United Nations for alleged arms trafficking activity and support of armed conflicts in Africa.”

Russian officials have opposed the extradition of Bout, a former Soviet air force officer with Russian government connections. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called the extradition decision “unlawful and political,” according to the Associated Press.

“I assure you that we will continue to do everything necessary to push for his return to his homeland,” the foreign minister said.

According to documents filed in Bout’s case in New York, the Russian arms dealer was drawn into the conspiracy by three confidential sources working undercover for the DEA. In addition, an unindicted “co-conspirator” – who remains unidentified – helped set up communications between the undercover operatives and Bout.

After a series of preliminary meetings in Curaçao, Netherlands Antilles; Copenhagen, Denmark; and Bucharest, Hungary, the undercover operatives won a face-to-face meeting with Bout in Bangkok.

The US allegations that Bout conspired to kill US nationals are based in part on statements Bout allegedly made to the undercover operatives during the Bangkok meeting. The conversations were recorded.

During the two-hour meeting, Bout allegedly agreed to provide the antiaircraft missiles, 5,000 AK-47 assault rifles, millions of rounds of ammunition, anti-personnel mines and C-4 explosives, night vision equipment, ultralight aircraft capable of carrying grenade launchers and missiles, and unmanned aerial vehicles with a range of 200 to 300 kilometers.

The initial payment for the weapons would be 15 to 20 million, but no currency was identified. The shipments were to be airdropped to FARC forces in the Colombian jungle. Payments could be made through Bout contacts in Spain, according to court documents.

Bout also reportedly offered to sell the undercover operatives two Russian cargo planes, an Antonov-32 and an Illyushin-76.

During the meeting, one of the undercover DEA operatives told Bout that the group wanted to use the arms against Chinook and Apache helicopters being flown by US military pilots. “We don’t have anything right now with which to defend ourselves,” the US operative is quoted as saying. “You see the helicopters landing and the Colombian troops getting off, but the pilot is American. And we want to start… killing American pilots.”

According to court documents, Bout replied: “Yes, yes. We’re going to prepare everything.”

Bout added: “We’re together… and we have the same enemy.”

Bout also offered to help the group launder money, according to court documents. The undercover US operatives told Bout they had 40 million Euros in Romania, Greece, and Spain that they needed to move.

“We can find you the way to, to, to do it properly,” the documents quote Bout as saying.

He advised the operatives to avoid using US dollars because, he said, dollar transactions are monitored by US authorities.

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