Bout finally gets the boot from Thailand
By Richard S Ehrlich
BANGKOK - Moscow denounced Thailand's extradition of suspected Russian weapons
smuggler Viktor Bout to New York on Tuesday, after entrapping him in a US Drug
Enforcement Administration (DEA) 2008 sting operation in Bangkok for allegedly
selling surface-to-air missiles and other weapons to a Colombian rebel group
the US considers terrorists.
In a surprise move, the Thai government plucked Bout from a Bangkok prison and
discreetly handed him over to waiting US officials, who bundled him onto a
plane. He arrived in New York on Tuesday and according to US officials faces
potential terrorism charges.
Worried about a possible assassination or ambush, Thai security
forces armed with assault rifles surrounded Bout while hurriedly escorting him
to the airport without informing the Russian Embassy in Bangkok that their
citizen was being extradited.
"Undoubtedly, the illegal extradition of Bout is a result of the unprecedented
political pressure on the Thai government and the judicial authorities by the
United States," a Russian Foreign Ministry statement said, according to RIA
Novosti news agency. There was no "rational explanation or justification" for
the extradition, the Russian Foreign Ministry statement said.
Bout faces trial in New York's Southern District court for conspiring to kill
Americans when he allegedly agreed to smuggle weapons worth millions of dollars
to DEA agents posing as Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)
guerrillas. Those terrorism-related crimes are punishable by life in prison in
the US. He was also charged with committing financial fraud and money
Bout, 43, is a former Soviet air force officer and linguist, who allegedly
became one of the world's biggest private weapons dealers. His life reportedly
inspired the Lord of War film, starring Nicholas Cage. A British
official once famously dubbed him the "Merchant of Death".
During court proceedings held in Thailand, Bout denied offering to sell weapons
to kill Americans during the DEA's sting in a Bangkok hotel on March 6, 2008,
and said no weapons were ever produced.
"It appears that the missile on offer was the AT-4 Spigot, a wire-guided
Russian missile system that has a maximum range of 2,000-2,500 meters and can
penetrate up to 400-460mm of armor, depending on the type of missile used," the
Washington-based Federation of American Scientists (FAS) said in 2009 after
examining documents from the US Attorney's Office for the Southern District of
A Grand Jury case of the "United States of America versus Viktor Bout" is
titled "Conspiracy to Kill United States Nationals" based on his alleged intent
to sell weapons to FARC rebels which in turn could have been used to
assassinate US officials working with Colombia's government.
New York prosecutors suspect Bout has illegal bank accounts at Wachovia, the
International Bank of Commerce, Deutsche Bank, and the Israel Discount Bank of
New York, according to another US indictment. Those accounts were allegedly
used by Bout's company, Samar Airlines, to purchase two Boeing aircraft,
despite a US ban against any American company or bank doing business with him.
"Viktor Bout allegedly made a career of arming bloody conflicts and supporting
rogue regimes across multiple continents, even using the US banking system to
secretly finance a fleet of aircraft," US Attorney Preet Bharara said in
Bout has insisted that he broke no US laws, never visited America, and had been
operating a legal air cargo business in Asia, Africa and elsewhere for more
than a decade without knowing what items his planes were transporting to war
zones and other mysterious destinations.
In August, Bout said that his alleged aliases, named in a 2008 indictment
signed by DEA special agent Robert Zachariasiewicz and presented to the New
York court, mistakenly included the real names of two other people who were not
Viktor Bulakin and Vadim Markovich Aminov, cited by the US among Bout's alleged
aliases, "also worked in the sphere of air transportation at the same time as
me, but I am not responsible for any of their actions," Bout said. "These two
people will be hugely surprised if they learn that they are me."
Starting in the 1990s, Bout allegedly sold or delivered weapons to rebels
fighting wars in Africa, the Middle East and South America, including to
Liberia's Charles Taylor, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, Afghanistan's Taliban
Thailand is a non-North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally of the US, and after
Bout was arrested in 2008, it came under immense diplomatic pressure from both
Washington and Moscow, with Russia repeatedly demanding he be released.
"One thing is for sure, the last thing Russia wants is Bout on American soil,
spilling his guts after getting a taste of American justice meted out in a
federal courthouse," said Michael Braun, who as chief of operations in 2007 for
the DEA was asked by the US National Security Council to bring Bout to trial
after hunting him since former US president Bill Clinton's administration.
A Russian involved in Bout's trial, who asked not to be identified, said in an
interview that Moscow was outraged that the US could grab one of its citizens
in a foreign country and drag them to America simply on allegations.
Bout was never convicted of any crime during his trials in Bangkok, which ruled
in August 2009 that he be set free because it was not illegal for foreigners to
have a conversation in Thailand about planning a crime elsewhere. After that
first extradition attempt failed, the US added allegations of financial crimes
committed in America. That US appeal was successful, resulting in a court
decision three months ago that he had to be extradited by November 19 or else
"Given that the defendant was charged with conspiring to kill American citizens
and American officers, conspiring to source ... anti-aircraft missiles, and
acquire weapons for a terrorist group like FARC - these are criminal offenses,
not just in the country where he is a plaintiff but also the country receiving
the charges," that Bangkok extradition ruling said in August 2010.
To block that ruling, Bout demanded the court hear the newer US allegations of
financial crimes against him - apparently hoping that trial would continue past
Friday and result in his eventual freedom. That legal twist meant that Bout had
demanded that he be put on trial for financial crimes, despite a recent request
by the US to drop those charges because America also feared the case would
conflict with their August extradition victory.
Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva meanwhile recently announced he would
make the final decision on Bout's extradition. On August 21, however, the Thai
premier had said, "The [Thai] government has been saying all along to the US
and Russia that it doesn't, and it can't, intervene in the justice process."
Bangkok was peeved in April when Moscow hosted former prime minister Thaksin
Shinawatra, who is an international fugitive dodging a two-year jail sentence
in Thailand for corruption during his five-year administration.
"Everyone is washing their hands, but he [Thaksin] is a bloody terrorist," Thai
Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya said in April. "There is this act of
interference by third countries - how can the Russians allow him there for two
days or the Germans before that?"
Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco,
California. He has reported news from Asia since 1978 and is co-author of the
non-fiction book of investigative journalism, Hello My Big Big Honey!
Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His website is