Russia says 'nothing to hide' in arms suspect case

BAKU Thu Nov 18, 2010 10:41am EST

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BAKU (Reuters) - Russia has "nothing to hide" from U.S. authorities prosecuting suspected arms dealer Viktor Bout, an ex Soviet air force officer, and hopes the charges he faces get a proper hearing, a top presidential aide said on Thursday.

"We have nothing to hide, nobody sees any military secrets or any other kind of secrets here," President Dmitry Medvedev's top foreign policy aide said in the Kremlin's most extensive comments since Bout's extradition to the United States from Thailand this week.

"It is in our interest that the investigation of this comrade be brought to completion, and he should answer all the questions the American justice system has," Sergei Prikhodko said, moderating Russia's tone after fierce criticism of Bout's extradition.

Bout, dubbed by some the 'Merchant of Death' for allegedly dealing weapons to dictators and conflict zones on three continents, could be imprisoned for life if convicted on U.S. terrorism and arms trafficking charges. There has been speculation he operated under the protection of the Russian state.

Prikhodko called the U.S. accusations "very serious."

"We have always said and will say that narcotics dealers, human traffickers and arms traders are all the same. These people deserve unconditional condemnation," Prikhodko told reporters during a visit by Medvedev to Baku, Azerbaijan.

The remarks appeared aimed to keep Bout at arm's length from the Kremlin and to avoid undermining fragile improvement in relations with the United States. The comments may also be meant to convey the Kremlin is confident his prosecution will not produce compromising information.

TUG-OF-WAR

Bout was flown to New York late on Tuesday from Thailand, where he had been the focus of a tug-of-war between Russia and the United States since his March 2008 arrest in a U.S.-led sting operation.

Russia angrily accused Thailand of bowing to U.S. pressure for Bout's extradition, which it called "illegal."

Bout, 43, faces four conspiracy charges. Accusations of trafficking arms in Africa, South America and the Middle East.

His extradition is a victory for U.S. law enforcement and the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama.

But it adds to strains threatening to undermine improvements in U.S.-Russian relations since Obama took office -- chief among them the questions clouding U.S. Senate approval of a landmark nuclear arms reduction pact he and Medvedev signed in April.

Bout was arrested in Thailand shortly after arriving from Moscow, where he had lived for years with no apparent interference from Russian authorities.

Analysts have said U.S. authorities may hope to glean information from Bout about Russia's intelligence networks and activities abroad.

Bout pleaded not guilty on Wednesday, and a judge ordered him held without bail. He is due back in Manhattan federal court for a hearing on January 10.

Russia's consul in the United States said earlier on Thursday that Bout told him he had rejected an offer from U.S. authorities of unspecified "advantages" in exchange for an admission of guilt during the flight from Thailand to New York.

The consul, Andrei Yushmanov, did not elaborate and it was unclear whether he was referring to a potential plea deal.

(Additional reporting by Conor Humphries; Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Matthew Jones)

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