Thai court agrees to hear accused Russian arms dealer’s appeal
A Thai court has agreed this week to hear an appeal by suspected arms trafficker Victor Bout, a move likely to frustrate, at least temporarily, U.S. efforts to extradite him on four terrorism-related counts.
The former Russian military officer earned international notoriety in the post-Cold War era for allegedly arming a rogues’ gallery of terrorist groups, militias and governments, many of which were under a United Nations weapons embargo.
If the court proceeds with the appeal it accepted Wednesday, Bout could remain in a Thai prison beyond the Nov. 20 U.S. extradition deadline, a date determined after an earlier court decision.
“Nobody is sure how long this could take,” Panitan Wattanayagorn, a government spokesman, said Thursday.
U.S. Ambassador Eric John met with Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva on Wednesday and expressed concern that the Thai government might overrule an Aug. 20 court decision that had paved the way for Bout’s extradition, Abhisit said afterward.
The prime minister has said his government will have the last word in the case, which has seen a war of words open up between the U.S. and Russia, both Thai allies. Moscow, which wants Bout back, has offered cheap oil and military hardware to Thailand since 2008, a move some analysts said could be part of an effort to slow the extradition process.
Panitan said the Thai administration would not interfere with the legal process but “will take into consideration international relations and Thai foreign policy in due course, after the court decision.”
Bout maintains that he was running a legitimate air cargo business.
In 2000, then-British government minister Peter Hain labeled Bout a “merchant of death,” a moniker that stuck. At the time, Britain was trying to help stabilize its war-torn former colony Sierra Leone amid charges that some of Bout’s weapons had ended up in rebel hands.
U.N. agencies and several Western governments have reported that Bout sent arms to dictators and warlords in Africa and Afghanistan, violating U.N. arms embargoes.
Some reports suggest that Bout used his Soviet-era military connections to set up his arms trade network during the political and rule-of-law vacuum that followed the Soviet breakup.
Washington failed in an initial attempt to have Bout extradited after his 2008 arrest in a Drug Enforcement Administration-led sting in Bangkok, the Thai capital. It subsequently filed money laundering and fraud charges against him in an attempt to prevent his being freed by Thai authorities.
Ironically, it’s this second set of “insurance” charges that could derail Bout’s extradition. Bout appears intent on remaining in a Thai prison — even going so far as attempting to implicate himself in serious financial crimes — rather than face what he and Moscow regard as a politically motivated trial in the United States.
Roughneen is a special correspondent.
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