US presses Thailand on alleged Russian arms dealer
The United States pressed Thailand Thursday to hand over alleged Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, ahead of a final Thai ruling on the US extradition request for the so-called "Merchant of Death."
The US State Department called in Thai Ambassador Don Pramudwinai this week "to emphasize that this is of the highest priority of the United States," department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters.
"We believe that we've presented significant evidence to justify his extradition to the United States," said Crowley, adding: "We think we've made our case, and we'll see what the judgment of the court is."
US lawmakers, meanwhile, 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."
The lawmakers complained that they had only learned through Bout's lawyer and the media that a Thai appeals court would decide Friday whether to send the accused arms trafficker to the United States to face terrorism charges.
"We find the potential release of a man responsible for countless deaths of innocents in Africa and elsewhere simply astounding," said the group, led by House Foreign Affairs Committee Howard Berman, a Democrat.
"More so as there is little doubt that he would return to his deadly trade, arming those targeting US and Thai interests around the globe," they said in a letter delivered to the Thai embassy on Wednesday.
Republican Representative Ed Royce's office released the letter, which was also signed by Democratic Senator Russell Feingold and Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the top Republican on Berman's committee.
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 on charges of peddling weapons around the world, including to Al-Qaeda.
A Thai criminal court last August rejected a US request to extradite the man dubbed the "Merchant of Death", saying it did not have the authorities to punish foreigners for their actions against other foreigners overseas.
A US indictment accuses Bout of using a fleet of cargo planes to transport weapons and military equipment to Africa, South America and the Middle East.
During an undercover operation, Bout allegedly agreed to supply surface-to-air missiles to US anti-drug agents posing as rebels from Colombia's Marxist FARC group, which Washington considers a terrorist organization.
The 43-year-old former Soviet air force pilot speaks six languages and is known by eight different aliases.
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.
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.
He faces life in prison if sent to the United States and convicted there on terrorism charges, which include conspiracy to kill US officers or employees and conspiracy to acquire and use an anti-aircraft missile.
"It especially pains us to say that the lack of coordination surrounding Viktor Bout's legal case is unfitting of a 'major non-NATO ally,' a designation granted Thailand in 2003," the US lawmakers said.
"Thank you in advance for communicating the negative impact on US-Thai relations that Bout's release would have to the appropriate authorities in Bangkok," they wrote the ambassador.
© 2010 AFP