Viktor Bout, weapons dealer, to be extradited to US from Thailand

Viktor Bout, the famed weapons dealer, can be extradited to the US, a Thai court ruled today. The so-called 'Merchant of Death' is accused of supplying dictators and warlords with weapons.

Sukree Sukplang/Reuters
Suspected Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, aka 'The Merchant of Death,' stands in a holding cell after arriving at a Bangkok criminal court August 20. A Thai appeals court ruled on Friday that Bout be extradited to the US to face charges of supplying weapons to Colombian rebels.

Viktor Bout – aka "The Merchant of Death" or "The Lord of War" – will be extradited to the United States more than 29 months after his arrest in Thailand.

A Thai appeals court ruled Friday that the 43-year-old Russian arms dealer could be extradited.

"Well, now we'll just go to a US court and win there instead," Mr. Bout told Russian news agency RIA Novosti.

The ruling drew immediate criticism from Russia and praise from the United States. Bout has been accused of supplying dictators and warlords with weapons used in civil wars in Africa, the Middle East, and South America. (Read the Monitor's backgrounder: Who is Viktor Bout?)

The US Department of justice lauded the decision.

"We are extremely pleased that the Appeals Court in Thailand has granted the extradition of Viktor Bout to the United States on charges of conspiring to sell weapons to a terrorist organization for use in killing Americans," Acting Deputy Attorney General Gary G. Grindler said in a statement today.

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

But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said it was an "unlawful, political decision" made "under very strong external pressure," Reuters reports.

The US was instrumental in Bout's arrest in March 2008. US Drug Enforcement Administration agents posed as arms buyers for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The Guardian reports:

According to the US grand jury indictment, Bout told the agents he could supply them with 700-800 surface-to-air missiles, more than 5,000 AK-47s and millions of rounds of ammunition, as well as C4 explosive, landmines and unmanned aerial drones.

Bout was indicted on four charges, including conspiracy to kill US nationals and conspiracy to provide material support to a proscribed terrorist group.

The US classifies FARC as a terrorist organization, but Thailand considers it a political movement, which is not grounds for extradition by Thai law. This led the Thai court to initially rule in Bout's favor and deny the US's extradition request. The US filed new charges earlier this year for money laundering and fraud, which were upheld today in court.

Ironically, the US reportedly hired Bout's cargo planes to fly weapons and other goods into Iraq during the war effort in 2004 at a time when he was already on Treasury Department blacklists. The US insisted it didn't know that Bout was the ultimate beneficiary of the federal money.

Russian officials have suggested that Bout's arrest is part of a conspiracy to prevent him from competing with US weapons dealers.

"Just because the cold war is over doesn't mean the competition between military-industrial interests has ended," Sergei Markov, a pro-Kremlin deputy of the Russian State Duma, told The Christian Science Monitor in 2009. "It's not about ideology, but it is about competing interests. Russia extends official support to Bout because he's a citizen, and because the Russian public doesn't see him as any kind of criminal. They expect him to be supported."

Moscow-based television news agency RT has this video report that suggests the Thai justice system worked "under US pressure." Thailand is a strong US ally in Southeast Asia.

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