BANGKOK (Reuters) - A Thai court on Tuesday dismissed charges of money-laundering and wire fraud against suspected Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, bringing him a step closer to extradition to the United States to face terrorism charges.
But the 43-year-old former Soviet air force officer nicknamed “Merchant of Death,” and his allies in Moscow, are expected to wage an intense effort to stop the extradition, possibly by appealing to Thailand’s prime minister who has final say.
Legs shackled, Bout turned to his lawyer after the verdict and asked him to appeal. He hugged his wife before about 30 police commandoes escorted him from Bangkok Criminal Court.
“Whether the process drags on depends on what the defense’s next move is and also what the government says after the court process is over,” said Sirirak Tiyapan, director of international affairs at the Thai attorney general’s office.
The legal wrangling is the latest twist in a two-year diplomatic tug of war between Washington and Moscow over a man accused of trafficking weapons since the 1990s to dictators and conflict zones in Africa, South America and the Middle East.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry has said Bout is an innocent businessman facing a politically motivated extradition that could undermine strengthening U.S.-Russian ties and undo the White House’s efforts to “reset” relations between the Cold War foes.
Bout, an inspiration for Hollywood movie “Lord of War” starring Nicholas Cage, has been held in a Thai maximum-security prison since his arrest in March 2008 in a joint U.S.-Thai sting operation in which agents posed as arms buyers for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
An appeals court on August 20 ruled to allow his extradition, overturning a 2009 lower court decision that did not recognize FARC as terrorists. The appeals court, however, said the case was criminal, not political, so Bout should be extradited.
Ahead of that decision, U.S. prosecutors hastily filed the money-laundering and wire fraud charges in hope of keeping him locked up if the verdict was not in Washington’s favor.
The defense has said it would seek to have the entire case restarted on grounds that the appeals court lacked proper authority to order his extradition. Bout has also petitioned Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to block the extradition.
“We will look into all possible means to make sure he does not get sent to the U.S. where he will not receive a fair trial,” said Bout’s defense lawyer, Lak Nitiwattanawijan. “We are seeking both legal channels and the executive channel.”
U.S. prosecutors say Bout told undercover agents in Bangkok he could supply them with 700 to 800 surface-to-air missiles, 5,000 AK-47 assault rifles, millions of rounds of ammunition, C-4 explosives, landmines and unmanned aerial drones.
Bout has denied all charges, saying he ran a legitimate air cargo business and was in Bangkok to discuss selling aircraft when he was arrested. He says his life would be in danger if he was sent to the United States.
Moscow’s aggressive lobbying has fueled speculation he was receiving protection from Russian authorities who had made no apparent attempt to interfere in his alleged operations.
Abhisit has said he would wait for the court’s ruling before making a decision based on national and diplomatic interests.
Thailand is one of Washington’s biggest allies in Asia but also looks to Russia for investment, tourism and military deals.
Additional reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat; Editing by Jason Szep and Robert Birsel