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6 Nov, 2008 04:44

'Merchant of Death' accuses his accusers

'Merchant of Death' accuses his accusers

The defence team of the so-called ‘Merchant of Death’ Viktor Bout, who’s accused of illegal arms dealing, is trying to prove that his initial arrest and detention were illegal. RT’s Evgeny Belenkiy reports from Bangkok.

I’m back in the Thai capital and covering the extradition case of Viktor Bout. To be exact, the extradition hearings have been rescheduled for the end of December – the 22, 23 and 24, and as things have been going so far, it means that the last one may end right on Christmas Eve.

The schedule changed because Mr Bout’s defence, after long consideration, finally decided to file a complaint based on article 90 of Thailand’s criminal procedure code: illegal detention. The first hearing totally devoted to this complaint happened on November 4. I learned many interesting things – on top of those that I already knew and wrote up in one of my previous articles.

For instance, the hearing has established as a fact that an arrest warrant for Viktor Bout had been issued on the charges of accumulating means for terrorism, according to the relevant article of the criminal code of Thailand, three days before Mr Bout stepped on board the aircraft that brought him from Moscow to Bangkok. It means he was accused in advance of a crime in Thailand which must have happened with his direct participation days before he ever arrived there.

The prosecutor said something about the broad meaning of the article, hinting at a ‘crime that may have been prepared abroad to be committed in Thailand,’ but Mr Bout’s lawyer replied that the article did not contain any words that could be interpreted in that way. Therefore, the warrant was illegal, he said.

The lawyer also stated that the initial letter from the U.S. embassy, asking the Thai authorities to apprehend Mr Bout, was written a week before his arrival. It caused three Thai ministries and the Royal Thai police Headquarters to agree to help, but was in no sense an extradition request and therefore had no legal authority.

He said even more: if the letter was meant as a preliminary extradition request of any sort, it was signed by the wrong person: an embassy official of considerably high standing but still not high enough: extradition documents are signed either by the Secretary of State or Attorney General or another full member of the U.S. Administration, holding a ministerial rank.

I am no lawyer to know exactly if this statement is true but the reaction of the prosecution (meaning the Thai prosecutor and his U.S. embassy comrades-in-arms) was to state immediately that the letter was not an extradition request.

The logic of what the defence team did next is quite understandable: they asked if it was not an extradition request, then what was it? Especially in the absence of a standing request for apprehension from Interpol or from any police force, prosecutor’s office or court in the World, including the U.S. (such related documents popped into existence a few days after the Bangkok arrest due to the effort of the U.S. Interpol office)?

So, what was it? A letter to a friend with a plea to help in need? Than what did it have to do with legitimacy and the process of law? And how could it happen that it caused serious consideration in three Thai ministries, police, the criminal court (it issued the actual Thai warrant for the arrest), and finally led to an arrest?

My experience of working in Thailand for many years tells me that the reason here was the unusually high status foreign diplomats enjoy in Thailand. With embassy license plates on your car you can do whatever you want on the road and the traffic police will only be saluting you, even if sometimes through their teeth.

A diplomat at a Thai middle-class wedding is like a General at a Russian one: a most honoured guest who raises the prestige and self-esteem of the newlywed couple and even more – of their parents. Diplomats are subordinates of an Ambassador, and an Ambassador is a foreign representative accredited with the Royal Court.

Besides, Thais know how to be grateful, and there’s a lot to be grateful for in the post-war history of their relations with America.

It seems that the members of the U.S. team which spent the past decade chasing Mr Bout around the globe, while he openly lived in Moscow and did not travel abroad at all, that brave and cunning team of men and women of U.S. law enforcement, has abused this high status given to diplomats in Thailand, as well as the general feeling of gratitude Thais feel towards the U.S., in their rush to lay their hands on the famous Merchant of Death.

Some would say that everything mentioned in the complaint filed by Mr Bout’s lawyers looks like technical details.

I think, in this particular case, the details form that space where the devil dwells, and dwells comfortably. Laws are written in a very precise language precisely for the reason of being precise, or else jails would have been filled to the brim with the wrongfully accused.

And if a man is accused of a terrorism-related crime which he may or may not commit when he arrives at a certain spot on the globe in a few days from now, and is arrested for that reason as soon as he arrives, the man may deserve at least the benefit of a doubt about the legitimacy of the accusations.

If the illegal detention complaint proves well-grounded, the extradition case of Viktor Bout may fall apart before our very eyes.

There may be a problem – as always, caused by human nature. Members of the Judiciary branch of power in our world have a strong sense of camaraderie and corporation. They may feel reluctant to admit that one of their own was duped by an embassy letter, wrong in its substance but set in the proper bureaucratic form, into issuing an arrest warrant for an innocent man.

The illegal detention complaint sets everything in the extradition case upside down. Or, maybe, back on its feet. The defendant charges, the prosecution has to defend itself, the witnesses of the prosecution turn into witnesses of Viktor Bout’s defence. This particular trend, as I observed, has caused special concern among the American part of the audience present at the hearing. The witnesses are called to appear before the court during the next session set for November 18. I’ll be back to report on the case on that date.

Evgeny Belenkiy, RT.

Related links

Bout speaks out: accusations of illegal arms dealing are ‘sham’

Merchant of Death or the Flying Dutchman of U.S. national security? Part 1.

Part 4…

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