Associate of arms dealer Viktor Bout extradited to New York

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A U.S-Syrian citizen accused of conspiring with jailed Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout has been extradited to New York from Australia to face charges he conspired to buy aircraft in violation of economic sanctions, federal prosecutors said on Friday.

Richard Ammar Chichakli is scheduled to be arraigned in federal magistrate court in Manhattan on Saturday, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, said in a statement.

Chichakli is charged with one count each of conspiracy to violate the International Emergency Economics Powers Act, money laundering and wire fraud conspiracy, as well as six counts of wire fraud. He faces up to 180 years in prison if convicted on all charges, officials said.

There was no immediate response to an email requesting comment to a website set up in Chichakli’s defense.

“With his extradition today to face charges for his flagrant violations of international sanctions and other crimes, he will now face the same American justice Viktor Bout did,” Bharara said.

Chichakli was a close associate of Bout - known as the “Merchant of Death” for his purported willingness to ship arms to any warlord or leader who could pay him - since the 1990s, U.S. officials said.

Bout was convicted in 2011 of conspiring to sell weapons to the rebel group FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, and is serving a 25 years sentence in the United States.

Prior to his conviction, Bout led an international arms smuggling operation by assembling a fleet of airplanes capable of shipping large quantities of weapons and military equipment to some of the world’s most violent conflict zones.

Chichakli also had close ties to former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, officials said.

A 2004 executive order issued by President George W. Bush prohibited any transactions or dealings in the United States by individuals affiliated with Taylor. That prohibition, which had already been extended to Bout, was placed on Chichakli in 2005.

Bout and Chichakli subsequently created companies in the names of others to mask their involvement, including a company they formed called Samar Airlines, according to court documents.

Prosecutors charge that the company attempted in 2007 to buy two Boeing aircraft from U.S. companies, and wired more than $1.7 million through New York banks into U.S. accounts in connection with the deal, according to court documents.

The U.S. Treasury Department blocked the funds that had been transferred into the bank accounts of the U.S. aviation companies when it learned of Chichakli’s connection, prosecutors said.

The website defending Chichakli contends that the two men were legitimate business partners on a number of ventures, but that after the 2004 U.S. sanctions, “there was no business relationship between Richard Chichakli and Victor Bout.”

Additional reporting by Bernard Vaughan; Editing by Bob Burgdorfer