BANGKOK – After months of diplomatic horse-trading and pressure, Thailand’s appeal court today ruled that Viktor Bout is to be extradited to the U.S. to face terrorism charges. He faces life in prison if convicted, with charges including conspiracy to kill US officers or employees and conspiracy to acquire and use an anti-aircraft missile.
Bout maintains that allegations against him are politically-motivated and that he was running a legitimate air cargo business. Mr Bout was labelled a ‘Merchant of Death’ by British Government minister Peter Hain, back in 2000 after years of running his alleged arms trade business with warlords and governments in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.
United Nations agencies and several Western governments have reported numerous times that Bout sent arms to dictators and warlords in Africa and Afghanistan, breaking several UN arms embargoes in the process.
In a scene akin to something out of a John le Carré novel, Bout was snared in a 2008 sting operation mounted by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) operatives posing as Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) arms dealers, operating alongside the Thai authorities.
In 2009 a Thai court rejected a U.S. request for Bout’s extradition on the grounds that the FARC, a Colombian militia the U.S. has formally labeled a terrorist organization and whose dealings with Bout were the focus of a 2008 U.S. indictment against him, was not a terror group under Thai law.
As a sort of insurance against any ruling against the U.S. extradition request today, American authorities lodged two further charges of money laundering and electronic fraud against Mr Bout before today’s hearing – if their appeal had been rejected, he would have had to remain in jail pending another decision.
The court has recommended he be extradited within three months and now it is up to the Thai Government to decide whether they will follow through with the decision or ignore the advice of the court and release Bout.
For Thailand to do the latter would represent a massive diplomatic snub to the U.S., which has exerted significant pressure on Bangkok to have Bout either extradited. Russia has done the same, hoping to prevent the extradition and have Bout returned to Russia – where he reportedly enjoys close ties with the Kremlin.
Today’s judgment comes as the U.S. is adopting a more assertive stance in southeast Asia, cutting deals with countries such as Vietnam, Indonesia and Cambodia – ostensibly as a counter to China’s growing influence.
The Thai Ambassador in Washington, D.C. Was reportedly summoned to meet American officials earlier this week about the impending judgment, while Republican Ed Royce meanwhile penned a piece published in The Washington Post warning that the U.S.’s long-standing ties with Thailand could be damaged if Mr. Bout is freed, one of several American politicians to speak out on the Bout case in recent weeks. Then six members of Congress – three Democrats and three Republicans – sent a letter to the Thai Government on Wednesday saying that Bout’s release would enable him to resume selling arms to anti-American groups.
For its part, Moscow sold oil to Thailand at cut-price rate, and has discussed selling fighter jets to the Southeast Asian nation, which has become a popular destination for Russian tourists and the country’s post-Communist nouveau-riche.
Some have speculated that there may be a Burma connection to Bout’s arrest. According to analyst Zachary Abuja, writing at the time of Bout’s arrest, “my educated hunch is he was buying surplus Chinese weapons from the Burmese junta.” Bout is reported to have previously bought weaponry on the Thai-Cambodia border, and to have purchased end-user certificates in southeast Asia. The fake certificates allow arms buyers conceal their identity and facilitate purchase from dealers and weapons manufacturers by middle-men. The fact that the US DEA was involved in his arrest has fostered speculation that Bout was in the region for reasons related to the ‘Golden Triangle’ drugs trade, which also takes in Burma and some of the country’s ethnic militias who finance their operations through drug smuggling.
A former military translator, Bout was born in 1967, in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, then part of the USSR. He began his arms trading after the collapse of the Soviet Union, buying Russian military aircraft at bargain prices and using his connections to kick-start what became one of the world’s most notorious black-market arms trading schemes
According to Bout’s own website, he is “a dynamic, charismatic, spontaneous, well-dressed, well-spoken, and highly energetic person who can easily communicate in several languages including Russian, Portuguese, English, French, Arabic, among several others. He is a born salesman with undying love for aviation and eternal drive to succeed.”
According to author Moses Naim, in his Illicit – How Smugglers, Drug Traffickers and Copycats are Hijacking the Global Economy, Bout “augmented his arms brokerage with conflict diamonds, frozen fish, cut flowers”, filling the holds of his aircraft with these materials for sale back in Europe and elsewhere, after the weaponry had been delivered to a particular conflict zone.
Bout’s sheer chutzpah extended, apparently, to flying missions for the U.S. in Iraq and for UN. As outlined in the book Merchant of Death, by Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun. Bout was hired to fly in arms to a particular group, the authors note, and then was paid by the UN to deliver humanitarian aid to the same area. It is not clear whether the U.N or U.S. Officials in either case understood that Bout was the man behind the front logistics and air transport companies hired for the tasks.
Bout is alleged to have simultaneously armed the Taliban and the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, as both sides fought each other in the years prior to the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. Bout is also reported to have armed Charles Taylor, the former warlord and President of Liberia, who in turn may have paid Bout in ‘conflict diamonds’ looted from nearby Sierra Leone. Taylor is now facing trial in The Hague for war crimes, with a high-profile witnesses including actress Mia Farrow and model Naomi Campbell testifying recently.
Bout’s trading empire drew both attention and grudging admiration, including in the 2005 film Lord of War, starring Nicholas Cage – which is loosely-based on Bout’s career, but does scant justice to the complexity, range and audacity of Bout’s work. Ironically, Cage also featured in the movie Bangkok Dangerous, about a hitman hired by a Thai gangster. which, like Lord of War, was poorly-received by critics. If it was not already used, the title would appropriate for any Lord of War sequel. Bangkok has certainly proved dangerous for Victor Bout, in ways that Afghanistan, the DRC, Iraq, Liberia and Sudan never did.Show