Thai court grants extradition of 'Merchant of Death'
A Thai appeals court on Friday granted a request by the United States to extradite Viktor Bout, an alleged Russian arms dealer dubbed the "Merchant of Death", on terrorism charges.
Bout, said to have inspired the Hollywood film "Lord of War" starring Nicolas Cage, has been fighting extradition since his March 2008 arrest in Bangkok in a sting operation involving US agents posing as Colombian rebels.
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.
His young daughter broke down in tears after the Bangkok court delivered its ruling, which his wife Alla later criticised as "unfair" and made under political pressure from the United States.
"The court has decided to detain him for extradition to the US," judge Jitakorn Patanasiri said, overturning a ruling last year by a lower court which had refused to send him to the United States.
"This case is not political, it is a criminal matter," the judge said.
The 43-year-old former Soviet air force pilot -- who is said to speak six languages and go by at least seven different aliases -- refused to talk to journalists as he was led out of court in shackles.
The United States, which has described Bout as "one of the world's most prolific arms traffickers," had lobbied hard to have him handed over.
The US State Department called in Thai ambassador Don Pramudwinai this week "to emphasise that this is of the highest priority of the United States," spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters on Thursday.
"We believe that we've presented significant evidence to justify his extradition to the United States," he said.
US lawmakers had urged the ambassador to let authorities in Bangkok know that rejecting the request would harm ties with Washington and said the kingdom's judiciary handling of the case had not been "fair and transparent."
Bout 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.
US prosecutors allege he agreed to the sale with the understanding that the weapons were to be used to attack United States helicopters.
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.
The United States has linked him to ex-Liberian president Charles Taylor, who is currently on trial at a war crimes court in the Hague for his alleged role in the 1991-2001 Sierra Leone civil war, which claimed some 120,000 lives.
Bout, who has been held at a maximum-security prison outside Bangkok, has denied the charges and says that he ran a legitimate air cargo business.
A Thai criminal court ruled in August 2009 that it did not have the authority to extradite Bout because FARC was not listed as a terrorist group in Thailand -- a decision praised by Moscow.
In February this year, US prosecutors announced new money laundering and fraud charges against him. The appeals court will hold a hearing on October 4 on those charges, which Bout denies, his lawyer said.
© 2010 AFP