Thai court removes hurdle to extradition of Viktor Bout
A Thai court on Tuesday dismissed money-laundering and fraud charges against alleged Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, removing a major obstacle to his extradition to the United States.
A Thai appeals court in August ordered Bout be handed over to Washington on terrorism charges, angering Russia, but the process has been held up by technicalities over the new accusations.
Thailand's Criminal Court on Tuesday dismissed proceedings surrounding the new charges against Bout, the so-called "Merchant of Death", citing insufficient evidence. Prosecutors said they would not appeal.
But the long-running extradition battle may not be over yet because Bout's defence lawyer has said he plans a last-ditch legal challenge against the extradition order issued in August.
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 rebels from Colombia's Marxist FARC group.
Wearing a bullet-proof vest and shackles, he was escorted to court from a high-security Bangkok prison by a team of police commandos for a second straight day of hearings Tuesday.
His wife Alla Bout told reporters at the court the United States was trying to use her husband "as a scapegoat to undermine Russian influence".
"The United States wants to stage a big show trial and hang on him everything that they don't know who committed anywhere in the world."
He 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.
The case has put Thailand in a difficult diplomatic spot between key ally the United States and Russia, which has strongly opposed extradition.
Bout has argued he could not expect to receive a fair trial in the United States.
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 US 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.
© 2010 AFP