'Merchant of Death' extradition stalls in Thai court

4th October 2010, Comments 0 comments

A long-running bid by the United States to put an alleged Russian arms dealer dubbed the "Merchant of Death" on trial stalled Monday as his extradition case hit a fresh legal snag in Thailand.

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 the United States on terrorism charges, prompting Washington to send a special jet to collect him.

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.

The case has put Thailand in a difficult diplomatic spot between key ally the United States and Russia, which has strongly opposed extradition.

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."

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.

Bout has maintained his innocence from the day he was picked up in the Thai capital after allegedly agreeing to supply surface-to-air missiles in a series of covert meetings that also took him to Denmark and Romania.

US prosecutors claim he agreed to the sale with the understanding that the weapons were to be used to attack United States helicopters.

But Bout has maintained that he has always run a legitimate air cargo business.

He has repeatedly denied suggestions that he was a former KGB agent and that he bought weaponry, aircraft and helicopters at throwaway rates at the fall of the Soviet Union to supply to conflict zones.

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

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