Thai court grants extradition of 'Merchant of Death'
A Thai court Friday ordered the extradition of an alleged Russian arms dealer dubbed the "Merchant of Death" to the United States on terrorism charges, prompting an angry response from Moscow.
Viktor Bout, said to have inspired the Hollywood film "Lord of War" starring Nicolas Cage, has been fighting extradition since his March 2008 arrest in a Bangkok sting operation by 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 a Bangkok appeals court delivered its ruling, which his wife, Alla, later said was "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 2009 decision by a lower court.
Bout, a 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.
Friday's ruling met with a warm response from the United States but prompted a furious reaction from Moscow, with the Thai ambassador to Russia, Chalermpol Thanchitt, "invited" to a meeting with the Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Alexei Borodavkin.
"We regret what is in my opinion an unjust decision, a political decision that the appeals court in Thailand has taken," Russian news agencies quoted Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as saying on a visit to Armenia.
In a thinly veiled reference to the United States, Lavrov added: "This decision, according to the information that we have, was taken under very strong pressure from the outside. This is sad.
"I assure you that we will continue to do everything necessary to obtain his return to the motherland."
The Russian side had made clear its "extreme disappointment and bewilderment about the politically motivated verdict of the Thai appeals court", the foreign ministry said.
The United States hailed the extradition ruling and said Bout's prosecution would be an "utmost priority".
"We are extremely pleased that the Appeals Court in Thailand has granted the extradition of Viktor Bout to the United States," said acting Deputy Attorney General Gary Grindler.
Barack Obama's counterterrorism adviser John Brennan said the White House was "very pleased" by the result, adding US officials "appreciate very much the decision" of the Thai authorities.
The United States, which has described Bout as "one of the world's most prolific arms traffickers", had lobbied hard for his extradition, summoning the Thai ambassador this week to emphasise it was of "the highest priority".
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.
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 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 praised by Moscow.
Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva insisted Friday that the new ruling was not influenced by politics and said the country aimed to maintain good relations with both the United States and Russia.
"We will explain the facts to both countries. This is not a political issue and Thailand is not taking sides," he told reporters.
In February this year, US prosecutors announced new money-laundering and fraud charges against Bout. The court will hold a hearing on October 4 related to those accusations, which Bout denies, his lawyer said.
© 2010 AFP