'Merchant of Death' back in Thai court
Alleged Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, the so-called "Merchant of Death", was to appear in a Thai court again on Monday in the next legal hurdle of his protracted US extradition case.
Bout, wanted on terrorism charges by the United States, was expected to be flown out in August after an appeals court ruling, but the process, which has forced Thailand into a delicate balancing act, faced a last-minute hold-up.
New charges of money-laundering and fraud -- introduced by American prosecutors earlier this year in an apparent attempt to aid the extradition case -- have to be dealt with before he can be expelled from Thailand.
Thai prosecutors believe the court on Monday will allow the charges to be dropped, theoretically opening the door for Bout to be handed over to a frustrated Washington.
"To my understanding, it is likely that the court will allow the second charges to be withdrawn, there is no obstacle," said Sirisak Tiyapan, director of International Affairs at the Attorney General's Office.
The speed of any extradition after that would depend on the readiness of other state agencies, he added.
Thai premier Abhisit Vejjajiva could have the final say however, with recent reports suggesting that the decision over whether to extradite Bout was his as head of state.
"In accordance with the law, ultimately the executive has the power to decide, but I would rather wait for the court ruling," Abhisit told reporters on Thursday, further muddying the waters.
The fate of Bout -- who was said to have inspired the Hollywood film "Lord of War" starring Nicolas Cage -- has put Thailand in an awkward position between the US and Russia.
Thailand and the United States have traditionally been close allies but Bangkok has also stressed it wants to maintain warm ties with Russia, an important trading partner.
A furious Moscow previously said attempts to extradite Bout to the US were politically motivated.
Bout faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted in the United States on charges including conspiracy to kill US nationals and to provide material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organisation.
The 43-year-old, thought to speak six languages and go by at least seven different aliases, has been fighting extradition since his March 2008 arrest after a Bangkok sting operation involving US agents posing as Colombian rebels.
© 2010 AFP