Russia fears 'Merchant of Death' could reveal secrets
Russia aims to stop Thailand's extradition to the United States of arms dealer Viktor Bout, the so-called "Merchant of Death", because it fears he could reveal embarrassing secrets
MOSCOW -- Russia is keen to stop Thailand's extradition to the United States of arms dealer Viktor Bout, the so-called "Merchant of Death", because it fears he could reveal embarrassing secrets, experts said.
The inspiration for the Hollywood film "Lord of War", Bout is facing terrorism charges in the United States and is accused of using a fleet of cargo planes to deliver arms in Africa, South America and the Middle East.
Bout, a 43-year-old former Soviet air force pilot, was arrested in 2008 after a sting operation in Bangkok involving undercover US agents posing as Colombian FARC rebels.
Bout has repeatedly denied suggestions that he was a former KGB agent and maintains that he ran a legitimate air cargo business.
A furious Moscow has said the extradition attempt is politically motivated and vowed "to do everything necessary" to bring Bout home, sparking speculation that he may have knowledge of sensitive information.
Thailand's Criminal Court earlier this month dismissed money-laundering and fraud charges against Bout that had been holding up his extradition, citing insufficient evidence. In an apparent delaying tactic, Bout's lawyer said he had submitted an appeal against the decision.
Alleged Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout talks to the media in a temporary cell ahead of a hearing at the Criminal Court in Bangkok.
Tatyana Stanovaya, an analyst with the Moscow-based Centre for Political Technology, said the Russian government fears that Bout will reveal details implicating the country in international arms trafficking.
"Bout was carrying out informal duties for a part of the Russian elite, for certain people in the government," she said, without mentioning specific names.
"There are cases where the state cannot have explicit relationships with pariah countries or organisations without a very good reputation. In such cases, you use people like him, on the borders of the law," she said.
If Bout is in fact, as Washington says, "one of the most prolific arms traffickers in the world," it is likely he benefited from some official complicity during the chaos that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
According to American journalist Douglas Farah, co-author of the book "Merchant of Death", Bout launched his career by obtaining Soviet-era planes that "were guarded by soldiers no one was paying".
Vadim Kozyulin, a professor at the Russian Academy of Military Sciences, said it is unlikely Bout carries secrets serious enough to damage the current Russian government, but he could reveal some embarrassing details about the country's elite.
Kozyulin said that by seeking to prevent the extradition Moscow is looking to protect Russia's reputation and those of influential figures who made their fortunes working alongside Bout in the 1990s, when weapons were disappearing from across the former Soviet Union.
Bout, the so-called "Merchant of Death", was to appear in a Thai court again in the next legal hurdle of his protracted US extradition case.
"In the 1990s everything was possible, the country had fallen apart... and there was no control over military equipment," he said.
"Many among those who profited are now important people. They would be very uncomfortable if someone revealed how they earned their first millions," Kozyulin said.
"Russian diplomats know that Bout will have to cooperate if he is sent to the United States," he added.
Experts noted, however, that Moscow has no real means of putting pressure on Thailand to prevent the extradition, which the United States has lobbied hard to secure.
Bout, who speaks six languages and has used at least seven separate identities, faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted in the United States on charges including conspiracy to kill US nationals and providing material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organisation.
Antoine Lambroschini / AFP / Expatica