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22 Sep, 2008 17:34

Marathon court hearing of 'Merchant of Death' leaves questions unanswered

The extradition case of Viktor Bout, a Russian businessman facing charges of arms trafficking and terrorism in the United States began in a Bangkok court on Monday. In a marathon twelve-hour hearing, a record for Thai co

After the court hearing the Russian consul in Bangkok, Andrey Dvornikov, noted that the prosecution were unable to answer many questions from Bout's defence lawyers. An American diplomatic agent called to the stand “refused to give a direct answer as to why the extradition request was not sent to Russia”, said Dvornikov .

Bout was arrested in the Thai capital in March at the request of the U.S. Washington says he was caught in Colombia trying to sell weapons to U.S. agents posing as FARC rebels.

He is accused of attempting to sell shoulder-to-air missiles and armour-piercing rocket launchers. Prosecutors say the weapons were supposed to be airdropped into Columbia. His long-term associate, Andrew Smulyan, also arrested in Bangkok, is reportedly willing to testify against Viktor Bout. It’s believed Smulyan has negotiated a plea bargain.

Bout has been dubbed 'The Merchant of Death' and is said to have been the inspiration for the 2005 film ‘Lord of War’, in which Nicholas Cage starred as an arms trafficker.

However, Bout denies all the charges – and doesn't like the film. “I feel very sorry for Nicholas Cage who played in this. It’s very silly. I feel pity for him as it’s a bad movie,” said Bout on RT's Spotlight programme two years ago.

The accused's defence team told RT that American prosecutors have not provided the Thai court with any evidence. They have only asked for extradition on the basis that there is a criminal case against him in the U.S. The judge may decide that this doesn't constitute sufficient grounds for an extradition order.

“If the American side has to provide proof of Viktor Bout's guilt, in that case he will win the case fair and square. He didn't do anything in Thailand. He only spent three hours there before going to jail and he has never been there before,” said Yevgeny Belenky, an associate of the defence team.

However, U.S. officials insist he has a case to answer.

“He was apprehended in the final stages of arranging the sale of millions of dollars of high-powered weapons to people he believed to represent a known terrorist organisation – the FARC,” said South New York District Attorney Michael J. Garcia.

The Russian businessman built up an air transport empire in the 1990s. In 2005, Bout’s airline transported armed vehicles and troops from the UK to Kosovo.

The next court hearing is scheduled for October 10.