Russian weapons dealer Viktor Bout stalls extradition to US

Viktor Bout has stalled his extradition to the US. But the delay may be short-lived in the case of the 'Merchant of Death,' accused of supplying dictators and warlords with weapons.

Damir Sagolj/Reuters
Suspected Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout is escorted by members of a special police unit after a hearing at a criminal court in Bangkok, on Oct. 4. A Thai court ruled on Monday against dropping extra changes against Bout, a decision that could complicate efforts by the US to extradite him.

The long-delayed extradition case of Viktor Bout, a notorious Russian businessman accused by the US government of conspiring to arm Colombian rebels, hit another roadblock Monday.

Prior to winning an appeal for extradition on Aug. 20, prosecutors filed additional charges against Bout in an effort to buy more time in court, because they feared they would lose the appeal. When the judge announced Bout could be extradited, there was no need to slow the process for the extra charges. The snag is that now, Bout's lawyer has objected to withdrawing those charges in an effort to extend the process and stave off extradition.

But Bout’s apparent victory may be short-lived. A Thai judge set a hearing for Tuesday on the new charges and said that no further submissions would be accepted. This should speed up the legal process and put Bout closer to a final decision, possibly within days, though observers say that other delaying tactics could stall any quick handover.

Arrested in Bangkok in March 2008 in a Drug Enforcement Agency sting operation, Bout has become a thorn in the side of Thailand. Russian government officials have urged Thailand to release him and warned that US-Russian relations could suffer. Bout’s supporters have decried US pressure on Thailand to hand over Bout, and claimed a political conspiracy against him.

Russia has far less leverage than the US in Thailand, a longtime military ally, says Paul Quaglia, executive director of PSA Asia, a security consultancy in Bangkok. But the diplomatic pressure has increased as Bout’s case has dragged on. “There is furious back-channeling by Russia,” he says.

Bout, a former military-intelligence officer, ran a lucrative air-cargo operation that emerged from the ruins of the Soviet war machine. He is accused of supplying armed groups and governments in Africa during civil wars in the 1990s. A Hollywood movie, "Lord of War," was loosely based on his life, of which little is known for certain. He has always denied being an arms smuggler.

(Read the Monitor's backgrounder: Who is Viktor Bout?)

The DEA sting operation involved agents posing as arms purchasers for FARC, a designated terrorist group in Colombia. US prosecutors have alleged that Bout agreed to supply anti-aircraft missiles and other weapons that would be used against American-backed Colombian troops.

At Monday’s hearing, Bout complained about the court’s failure to provide a Russian interpreter. He told reporters that Thailand was under “special American influence.” Earlier he wore a bulletproof vest as a unit of heavily armed police escorted him into the courthouse. Russian diplomats say that Bout’s safety has become an issue, though Thai officials haven’t specified what threat he faced.

Bout’s wife, who sat beside him in court, has written directly to Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva for her husband’s release. As head of government, he must sign off on any extradition, though this is usually a formality, say Thai lawyers.

But Mr. Abhisit said that in Bout’s case, he would take diplomatic relations into consideration. “The decision may upset someone, but we will follow the law and take this time to create understanding to all parties involved,” Abhisit told reporters last week.

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