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20 Aug, 2010 11:23

Thai court orders extradition of suspected Russian arms baron to US

The Appeals Court of Thailand on Friday has ruled that Russian businessman Viktor Bout must be extradited to the United States to stand trial over charges of conspiracy to sell weapons.

A Thai appeals court delivered the verdict after a lower court rejected Washington's extradition bid.

The decision is final and the extradition is expected to happen within three months.

The 43-year-old was arrested two-and-a-half years ago in Bangkok in an elaborate operation led by US agents.

Since then the US has been seeking his extradition.

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called the Thai court’s decision about Bout’s extradition “non-legal” and “politically motivated”.

“We are sorry about this, in my opinion, non-legal decision, politically motivated decision, that Thailand’s court made,” Lavrov said. “This decision, according to information we dispose, was made under strong pressure from outside, and this is sad.”

“Concerning interests of the Russian citizen, all these months we have been giving him assistance, were in touch with his lawyers and his family, and I assure you that we will do all that is necessary to achieve his return home,” Lavrov added.

The Russian Foreign Ministry has expressed its surprise to the Thai Ambassador in Moscow Chalermpol Thanchitt over the ruling.

“We have pronounced utmost disappointment and bewilderment over the politically motivated verdict of the Thai appeals court, which contradicts the earlier decision of the criminal court of the country made in August, 2009, which refused extradition of Victor Bout to the US due to insufficient evidence by the American side of the Russian citizen’s guilt,” said the statement on the ministry’s website.

The statement added that the ambassador promised to report Russia’s position to the Thai government.

Washington wants Bout on charges of terrorism and supplying arms to Colombian rebels – allegations he denies.

A Thai court threw out Bout’s charges a year ago, ruling that they lacked legal grounds and were politically motivated.

Regardless, Bout has sat in prison ever since, while the US continued to appeal against the Thai court’s decision, submitting more allegations as evidence while he remained incarcerated.

Viktor Bout, nicknamed “The Merchant of Death”, denied all accusations of arms selling – and laughed off parallels with Hollywood’s Lord of War movie.

“I feel very sorry for Nicolas Cage who went to play this movie. It’s very silly. This movie is bad and I feel pity for him,” Viktor Bout said while being a guest of RT’s Spotlight programme.

His statement never changed – even when it came from behind bars in the infamous “Bankgok Hilton” prison.

“He was apprehended in the final stages of arranging a sale of millions of dollars of high-powered weapons to the people he believed to represent a known terrorist organization – the FARC,” announced Michael J. Garcia, US attorney, Southern District, NY.

Not many people were willing to give Bout the type of "credit" given to him by American prosecutors.

Former UN arms inspector Brian Johnson-Thomas believes Washington's battle to jail Bout has become personal.

“He is possibly a merchant of some deaths, but he certainly is not the man the US call ‘The Merchant of Death’,” Johnson-Thomas acknowledged. “I would think that 95% of his flights were ordinary commercial goods.”

In the long and drawn-out extradition hearing that took over two years, the United States changed, added and modified their charges against Mr. Bout to include violating international law as well as arms trafficking. His family believes at some point it became a process for the process instead of a process for justice.

Bout’s brother Sergey told RT that “Friday’s court ruling shows that the Thai justice system is entirely under US pressure. There is no justice as such. Work done for previous hearings over a year and a half clearly showed there is not enough evidence of my brother’s guilt. But for some reason it turns out to be enough for the appeals court. The US kept pressing the Thai court, the prosecutor general and then a senator signed a letter to Thai ambassador warning of the consequences if my brother is released. This again shows that Viktor Bout’s case is political and not criminal.”

Kent Goodman, media director of Trine Day books, believes Bout is being extradited to the US because he posed a direct threat to American businesses in Africa.

Bout's trial and tribulations have been as closely followed by the media as Hollywood’s version of the life of the Merchant of Death.