Alleged Russian arms dealer faces Thai extradition decision

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Alleged Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout appears in court again Monday as his extradition to the US faces its next legal hurdle, in a protracted case that has forced Thailand into a delicate balancing act.

The so-called "Merchant of Death", wanted on terrorism charges by the United States, was expected to be flown out in August after an appeals court ruling.

But the process was held up at the last minute, frustrating Washington, which had a plane waiting on the Tarmac to whisk him off.

New charges of money-laundering and fraud -- introduced by American prosecutors earlier this year in an apparent attempt to aid the extradition case -- have to be dealt with before he can be expelled from Thailand.

Thai prosecutors believe the court on Monday will allow the charges to be dropped, theoretically opening the door for Bout to be handed over.

"To my understanding, it is likely that the court will allow the second charges to be withdrawn, there is no obstacle," said Sirisak Tiyapan, director of International Affairs at the Attorney General's Office.

The speed of any extradition after that would depend on the readiness of other state agencies, he added.

But Thai premier Abhisit Vejjajiva could have the final say, with recent reports suggesting that the decision over whether to extradite Bout was his as head of state.

"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 on Thursday, further muddying the waters.

The fate of Bout -- who was said to have inspired the Hollywood film "Lord of War" starring Nicolas Cage -- has placed Thailand in an uncomfortable position between the US and Russia.

Thailand and the United States have traditionally been close allies but Bangkok has also stressed it wants to maintain warm ties with Russia, an important trading partner.

A furious Moscow previously said attempts to extradite Bout to the US were politically motivated.

Bout, thought to speak six languages and go by at least seven different aliases, has been fighting extradition since his March 2008 arrest after a Bangkok 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.

Washington has described the 43-year-old mustachioed Russian as "one of the world's most prolific arms traffickers".

A US indictment accuses him 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.

The former Soviet airforce pilot rejects the charges and says that he ran a legitimate air cargo business. In August, he submitted a letter from jail to Abhisit opposing his extradition and seeking assurances for his safety.

Recent statements from Abhisit on the government's website suggested that the Thai PM was still undecided.

"We have to take the issues of cooperation, international relations and national interest into account, but there is no silver bullet and there are two countries involved in this case," he said.

Abhisit explained he had asked the US to conduct direct negotiations with Russia, adding that whatever decision was made, one country was bound to be disappointed.

© 2010 AFP

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