By Tim Johnston
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
BANGKOK, Aug. 11 -- A Russian air cargo magnate suspected of being a major arms trafficker won the first stage of his battle to avoid extradition from Thailand to the United States on charges of offering to supply weapons to Colombian rebels.
Viktor Bout, 42, has spent more than a year in prison in Bangkok since being caught in a sting operation by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officers posing as members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a guerrilla group known as FARC.
The DEA maintains that Bout agreed to supply ground-to-air missiles that could have been used to target the agency's operatives, who are assisting in the Colombian government's attempts to wipe out the country's cocaine crops.
But the court ruled in favor of Bout.
"The U.S. charges are not applicable under Thai law," the judge in the case said in delivering an hour-long verdict at Bangkok's Criminal Court. "This is a political case. The FARC is fighting for a political cause and is not a criminal gang. Thailand does not recognize the FARC as a terrorist group." The court "does not have the authority to punish actions done by foreigners against other foreigners in another country," the judge said.
The prosecution has 72 hours to appeal the verdict.
"We are disappointed and mystified by this lower-court ruling," said James F. Entwistle, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Thailand. He said the extradition request was "clearly" supported by Thai law.
Bout is a former member of the Soviet air force. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, he used his contacts and the huge surplus of aircraft and crew members to start an air transport company. His detractors allege that he also became one of the world's most prolific arms dealers, sending weapons to fighters in conflicts across Africa and the Middle East.
Bout, alleged to have been the basis for the character played by Nicolas Cage in the film "Lords of War," has consistently denied being an arms dealer.
"I never supplied arms and especially never had any deal with al-Qaeda," Bout told British television in a prison interview this year.
Some observers here view the case as symbolizing the declining influence of the United States in Southeast Asia. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited Thailand for a regional meeting last month and declared, "We're back." But Washington's position as the dominant force in the area has been undermined by the rise of China and other regional powers.