US cables reveal bribe fears in Thai Bout arms case

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Russian associates of alleged arms dealer Viktor Bout tried to block his extradition to America by bribing a key witness in the case, US diplomats warned in secret cables released Thursday.

Two documents published on the WikiLeaks website detailed US frustrations during its attempts to gain custody of the former Russian military officer, who it accuses of terrorism and running a huge weapons-trafficking business.

Bout, whose story inspired the 2005 Nicolas Cage film "Lord of War", was arrested in a sting operation in Bangkok by Thai and US forces in March 2008 and was extradited to New York in November after a protracted legal battle.

A cable sent in August 2009, soon after a Thai court refused a US extradition request, said there had been "significant indications that the Russians were trying to use bribes to influence the outcome of the case".

This had earlier prompted ambassador Eric John to gain assurances from the Thai prime minister to ensure the case was "free of inappropriate influence".

A previous cable, dated February last year, said the ambassador had told Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva of "growing concern" about the case.

John laid out evidence that the extradition proceedings were "tainted as a result of the efforts by Bout's associates to bribe Thai officials", it added.

The ambassador detailed "false testimony" from an official -- whose name has been redacted -- who claimed Bout had been in Thailand to conduct "official business with the government relating to a submarine project".

The US embassy in Bangkok believed the witness statement -- if it had not been proven false -- would have obstructed the extradition based on the "erroneous conclusion" that Thailand had official dealings with Bout.

Other attempts to derail the process included a scheme to "arrest and thereby embarrass" two US diplomats -- both assigned to the investigation -- on allegations that they took illegal recordings of Bout on the day of his arrest.

Bout was nabbed at the five-star Sofitel hotel in Bangkok while negotiating with US agents posing as guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

In a career spanning two decades, the burly Russian allegedly stoked violence from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan by bartering deals for planes and guns.

The August 2009 cable said the Thai court decision to reject its initial extradition request had "dubious legal reasoning" and could hurt Thai prosecutions in the future.

"The lead judge's foray into foreign policy, rejecting the terrorism label and in effect embracing the FARC's activities as purely political in nature, not criminal or acts of terrorism, has implications for Thailand," it said.

The message questioned "whether we can count on the Thai courts to do the right thing on high-profile extradition cases" that affect relations with a third country.

"Our reluctant conclusion is that we cannot," it said.

In a sign of how seriously the case was taken, US diplomats urged plans for a telephone call between President Barack Obama and Abhisit to be accelerated.

Talks should include "serious discussion of our concerns over the implications of the Bout verdict", the August cable said.

Abhisit on Thursday rejected suggestions that he had spoken to the US leader.

The case strained US-Russian ties, with Moscow initially denouncing Bout's sudden departure from Thailand as an "extreme injustice".

But Russia has since softened its tone and distanced itself from the highly controversial figure.

Bout has always maintained his innocence, insisting he runs a legitimate air cargo business, and pleaded not guilty in a New York court in November.

He faces between 25 years and life in prison if convicted.

© 2010 AFP

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