Russian arms dealer suspect to face US judge

17th November 2010, Comments 0 comments

Russia's so-called "Merchant of Death," who allegedly ran an arms dealing empire across three continents, was to face a US judge Wednesday after a cloak-and-dagger extradition from Thailand that enraged Moscow.

Viktor Bout, 43, was to be arraigned before Judge Shira Scheindlin in New York federal court at 1:00 pm (1800 GMT) on terrorism charges that carry a maximum penalty of life in prison and minimum penalty of 25 years.

He arrived overnight under heavy guard from Thailand, which agreed to his extradition after two years of legal battles and intense pressure from both Moscow and Washington.

Bout is charged with attempting to sell Colombia's FARC rebels an arsenal of surface-to-air missiles and infantry weapons between November 2007 and March 2008. The FARC representative he allegedly dealt with was in fact a US undercover agent.

US Attorney General Eric Holder called his capture "a victory for the rule of law worldwide," and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos told reporters in Bogota that Bout "should pay."

But Russia said the burly, mustachioed Bout had been subjected to an "illegal extradition," while Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow would support Bout "by all means" from "extreme injustice."

The row, which follows another storm over the US authorities' unmasking of a Russian spy ring earlier this year, threatened a new disruption to President Barack Obama's policy of building closer ties with Moscow.

Analysts said the harsh reaction indicated alarm in Moscow that Bout might give away secrets about the extensive and often murky weapons dealing businesses run from the ex-Soviet Union.

A former Soviet air force officer said to speak six languages and operate under even more aliases, Bout says he is an legitimate businessman.

But according to Holder, Bout is "one of the world's most prolific arms traffickers."

The acting administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration -- the agency that set up the Thai sting operation -- said the world would be safer with Bout locked up.

"For more than a decade, Mr Bout is alleged to have plied a deadly trade in surface-to-air missiles, land mines, bullets, death and destruction," Michele Leonhart said.

"Fortunately, with his arrest, extradition, and pending prosecution in the Southern District of New York, his last alleged attempt to deal in death means that he will finally face justice."

Bout's alleged exploits from Latin America to Africa and Afghanistan earned him the nickname "Merchant of Death" and "Lord of War," after a movie starring Nicholas Cage who is said to have modeled his character on Bout.

Washington alleges that the arms he has sold or brokered fueled conflicts and supported warring regimes in Afghanistan, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Sudan.

His clients have allegedly included the Taliban and al Qaeda, while his payments allegedly ran from hard cash to blood diamonds.

Bout denies all those claims and his wife, Alla, told AFP that he was the real victim.

"Viktor doesn't have any secrets that can be useful to the United States. I think the US will play him as a card in their political game with the Russian government," she said.

Bout's departure from Thailand was every bit as secretive and dramatic as the deals he is alleged to have handled in the world's most dangerous corners.

Escorted by dozens of armed Thai police commandos and with snipers deployed along the route, Bout was whisked from a maximum security Bangkok prison to a waiting US government plane.

"The operation had to be carried out quickly because of the possibility of an ambush and assassination on the way," Colonel Supisarn Bhakdinarunart, commander of Thailand's Crime Suppression Division, told AFP.

The Russian embassy in Bangkok said it had been taken by surprise.

"The embassy got no official information from the Thais. It seems a little strange for us. It was done in such a hurry," said Andrey Dvornikov, head of the consular section.

"They have given nothing, no warning for the embassy, for the wife, for the lawyer -- nothing," he told AFP.

© 2010 AFP

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