BANGKOK (Reuters) - A Thai appeals court ruled on Friday that suspected Russian arms smuggler Viktor Bout can be extradited to the United States to face terrorism charges following two years of diplomatic pressure from Washington.
Nicknamed the “Merchant of Death” and the inspiration for Hollywood movie “Lord of War” starring Nicholas Cage, the 43-year-old Bout faces U.S. accusations of trafficking arms since the 1990s to dictators and conflict zones in Africa, South America and the Middle East.
The verdict was a victory for the Obama administration which summoned the Thai ambassador in Washington this week to express concern Bout could be freed.
“We are extremely pleased,” Acting Deputy U.S. Attorney General Gary G. Grindler said in a statement. “We have always felt that the facts of the case, the relevant Thai law and the terms of our bilateral extradition treaty clearly supported the extradition of Mr. Bout on these charges.”
Bout has been held in a Thai maximum-security prison since his arrest in March 2008 during a joint U.S.-Thai sting operation in which agents posed as arms buyers for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
The court overturned 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 and handed to U.S. authorities within three months.
Bout’s wife, Alla, accused the Thai authorities of succumbing to pressure from Washington. “This is a result of constant pressure from the U.S. government,” she said, moments after hugging her shackled husband as guards whisked him away.
“This is the most unfair decision because the initial court already said it’s a political case,” she added, before breaking down in tears.
U.S. prosecutors say his clients included former Liberia dictator Charles Taylor and Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, and his deals helped fuel wars in Afghanistan, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Sudan.
Bout denied the charges, saying he ran a legitimate air cargo business and was in Bangkok to discuss selling planes when he was arrested. His lawyer, Lak Nittiwattanawichan, said he would petition the Thai government to block extradition.
“The defense believes Bout will not be safe in the U.S. and he will not receive a fair trial,” Lak told reporters.
U.S. lawmakers had sent a letter sent to the Thai government in April warning the case could harm bilateral relations.
Moscow had also lobbied Thailand, seeking Bout’s release and fuelling speculation the former Soviet air force officer was receiving protection from Russian authorities who had made no apparent attempt over the years to interfere in his operations.
Russia’s foreign ministry called the ruling “unlawful” and vowed to seek his release. “We regret this ... unlawful, political decision,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said during a visit to Armenia. “I assure you we will continue to do everything necessary to secure his return to his homeland.”
The appeals court judge said Thailand had similar laws to the United States under which Bout could be charged, and therefore he must be extradited according to a treaty between the countries.
According to the U.S. indictment, 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.
Additional reporting by Steve Gutterman in Moscow and Denis Dyomkin in Yerevan; Writing by Martin Petty. Editing by Jason Szep