"Merchant of Death" extradition stalls in Thai court
A long-running US legal battle to secure the extradition of an alleged Russian arms dealer dubbed the "Merchant of Death" stalled Monday as a Thai court declined to drop new charges against him.
Viktor Bout, a 43-year-old former Soviet air force pilot thought to speak six languages and go by at least seven different aliases, has been fighting extradition since his March 2008 arrest after a sting operation in Bangkok.
A Thai appeals court in August ordered the Russian to be handed over to Washington -- despite fierce opposition from Moscow -- but the process has been held up by technicalities over new accusations of money-laundering and fraud.
In a bid to clear the way for his extradition, prosecutors asked Thailand's Criminal Court to drop legal proceedings linked to the additional charges, but the court rejected the request, scheduling another hearing for Tuesday.
Bout, wearing a bullet-proof vest, was escorted to court from a high-security Bangkok prison earlier Monday by a team of police commandos.
He 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.
He allegedly agreed to supply millions of dollars of weapons to undercover US agents in Thailand posing as rebels from Colombia's Marxist FARC group, which Washington considers a terrorist organisation.
Asked by reporters at the court whether he thought he would receive a fair trial in the US, he replied: "No. Of course not."
After the court delivered its ruling, he said: "I want to go home."
The case of Bout -- who was said to have inspired the Hollywood film "Lord of War" starring Nicolas Cage -- has forced Thailand into a diplomatic balancing act.
The United States has traditionally been a close ally of the kingdom but Bangkok has also stressed it wants to maintain warm ties with Russia, an important trading partner.
A furious Moscow previously said the extradition attempt was politically motivated, vowing "to do everything necessary" to bring Bout home.
The final decision on whether to send him to the US could rest with Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.
"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 last week.
A US indictment accuses Bout of using a fleet of cargo planes to transport weapons and military equipment to parts of the world including Africa, South America and the Middle East.
It alleges that the arms he has sold or brokered have fuelled conflicts and supported regimes in Afghanistan, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Sudan.
A Thai criminal court had ruled last year that it did not have the authority to extradite Bout because FARC was not listed as a terrorist group in Thailand -- a decision overturned by the appeals court in August.
The nickname "Merchant of Death" was coined by a former British foreign office minister and also used for a 2007 book on Bout's alleged activities.
© 2010 AFP