An appeal court in Thailand ruled today to extradite suspected Russian arms smuggler Viktor Bout to the United States, effectively ending a nearly 25-year chase for the man dubbed The Merchant of Death.
The decision overturns a lower court’s rejection of the US extradition request.
The court said Bout must be extradited within three months or would be free to return to Russia.
Bout, a 43-year-old former Soviet air force officer, is reputed to be one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers, allegedly supplying weapons that fuelled civil wars in South America, the Middle East and Africa.
His clients were said to include Liberia’s Charles Taylor, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and both sides of the civil war in Angola.
Shackled in leg irons, Bout cried after the verdict was read at the court in Bangkok and hugged his wife and daughter.
“This is the most unfair decision possible,” his wife told reporters, speaking in Russian through a translator. “It is known the world over that this is a political case.”
Bout says he is the victim of an American “frame-up”. During the hearing he claimed he ran a legitimate air cargo business and was in Bangkok to discuss selling aircraft to Thai businessmen.
Bout’s lawyer Lak Nittiwattanawichan also called the extradition politically motivated and said he would try to keep fighting the extradition.
“I am going to submit a request to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Cabinet. I will also submit a request to the king and queen,” he said.
Bout was arrested in March 2008 at a Bangkok luxury hotel as part of an elaborate sting in which US agents posed as arms buyers for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which Washington classifies as a terrorist organisation.
After his arrest, Bout was indicted in the US on charges of 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.
The case became the centre of a diplomatic tug-of-war between Moscow and Washington, both of which want Bout turned over and were closely following today’s verdict.
Russia made great efforts to get Bout out of Thailand. Experts say Bout has been useful for Russia’s intelligence apparatus and Russia does not want him going on trial in the US.
In August 2009 the Bangkok Criminal Court rejected the extradition request. It said Thailand considers the FARC a political movement and not a terrorist group, and that extradition under a Thai-US treaty could not be granted for a political offence.
But the appeal court disagreed, saying the case was a clear cut criminal one and Bout should go to New York to answer to criminal charges.
“The court has decided to overturn (the lower court verdict). Now Viktor Bout would have be extradited to the US within three months according to the extradition act,” the ruling said.
Bout has never been prosecuted, despite being the subject of United Nations sanctions, a Belgian money-laundering indictment and a travel ban.
US State Department spokesman PJ Crowley said the Thai ambassador in Washington was summoned to the State Department this week so US officials could “emphasise that this is of the highest priority to the US”.
Thai prosecutors appealed against the lower court’s ruling on Washington’s request. And in February, US prosecutors filed new charges in hopes of convincing reluctant officials in Thailand to extradite Bout despite Russia’s objections.
The new charges say Bout and his former business associate, Richard Chichakli, used a series of front companies to purchase two planes from US firms in 2007, breaking US and United Nations sanctions. At the time, US officials intervened to block the sale.
Bout’s nickname arose from his 1990s-era notoriety for running a fleet of ageing Soviet-era cargo planes to conflict-ridden hotspots in Africa. A high-ranking minister at Britain’s Foreign Office first used the nickname in 2000 to single out Bout for his arms role in Africa.
The 2005 Nicolas Cage film 'The Lord Of War' is widely believed to be based on Bout’s life.