It’s hard to argue that you’re a legitimate Russian businessman when you’re the inspiration behind "Lord of War." Admittedly, the movie changed the character to a Russian-American living in Brighton Beach. And the burly Bout, a Soviet-trained Air Force pilot, doesn’t look much like Nicholas Cage. But on Tuesday in Thailand, Bout was handed his own version of a Hollywood ending: A court there denied a US extradition request.
Who is Bout? The UN and several Western governments accuse Bout of running guns to both sides of ruinous African conflicts and using his fleet of cargo planes to help warlords like Liberia's Charles Taylor – currently on trial for crimes against humanity – to flout arms embargoes.
Last year, a US sting operation lured Bout to Bangkok where he was allegedly brokering an arms deal for FARC, the Colombian rebels. He was arrested and put in a Thai jail. The US sought his extradition on a federal indictment.
But on Tuesday, Bout triumphed. A Thai judge ruled against his extradition on the grounds that Thailand doesn’t recognize FARC as a terrorist organization. The judge ordered Bout, who appeared elated in court, to be released. An appeal by prosecutors is likely.
Bout has insisted that he charters cargo planes only for legitimate customers, including the UN. But the US has claimed that he supplied arms to the Taliban and Al Qaeda, charges that Bout refutes. Bout's operations, legitimate or otherwise, are, vast, opaque, and very good at delivering weapons to dangerous places.
In 2004, it was found that the US had paid some of his companies millions of dollars -- despite his being blacklisted from US government contracting and under Department of Justice investigation-- to deliver weapons to Iraq. US officials later said they didn't realize they were doing business with Bout.
The indictment in a New York federal court claims that Bout offered to supply surface-to-air missiles, assault rifles, ammunition, land mines and aerial drones to the FARC.
Thailand has proved cooperative on past extradition cases. But Russia is increasing its presence in Thailand and went to bat for its citizen, sending consular staff to the drawnout hearings.