Will the Notorious Mr. Bout Get a Free Pass From Thai Courts?
THE WIFE OF Viktor Bout, the international arms merchant nabbed last year by undercover American drug agents posing as weapons-hungry Colombian rebels, insists that her husband's interest in South America extends only to "tango lessons." Like his wife, Mr. Bout, a former Russian air force officer, has also taken the international community for fools while, U.S. officials say, he went about ferrying millions of dollars worth of military equipment to rogue nations, terrorist groups and rebels of every ideological stripe on four continents while insisting that he was an honest businessman. Now, despite evidence that he planned a huge sale of arms to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a Thai court has handed Mr. Bout a victory by rejecting his extradition to stand trial in the United States. Will Thailand allow Mr. Bout to continue playing the world for fools?
In the view of U.S. and international officials, Mr. Bout, dubbed "the Merchant of Death" by journalists Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun in their book of the same name, has probably done more to bust international sanctions and fuel bloody conflicts around the world than any man alive. Operating from his home in Moscow, where his close ties with military and intelligence circles apparently afforded him protection, he built what was believed to be the world's most formidable one-stop shop for black-market weaponry, up to and including tanks, helicopters and surface-to-air missiles. He controlled a large fleet of former Soviet aircraft, which he used to ferry goods anywhere and everywhere -- including into Baghdad on behalf of the United States following the invasion of Iraq. In a hugely profitable, two-decade-long career, his customers are believed to have included outlaw governments, armed factions and terrorists in the Philippines, Lebanon, Afghanistan and, especially, some of the more violent and lawless countries in Africa.
The noose started to tighten on Mr. Bout a few years ago, when his movements were cramped by an arrest warrant issued by Belgium, a travel ban imposed by the United Nations and sanctions levied by Washington. Possibly, it was a tougher business climate that led Mr. Bout to drop his guard and agree to travel to Thailand in March last year to meet with agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration posing as FARC rebels. Shortly after arriving at his hotel in Bangkok, Mr. Bout was arrested by Thai authorities working with the DEA.
Since then, the Kremlin, which has expressed its contempt for international law by tolerating or approving of Mr. Bout's arms enterprise, has pressed hard for his release, selling the Thais cheap oil, talking about selling them fighter jets and, as has been hinted by U.S. officials, offering bribes. Not long ago, one of the Thai judges hearing Mr. Bout's case mused publicly that the court's decision on his extradition would anger either Washington or Moscow. In a decision rendered Tuesday, the court handed Mr. Bout a victory, arguing that the FARC, notorious for its kidnapping and cocaine trafficking, was a political group, not a terrorist one, and in any event, no affair of Thailand's.
Thai prosecutors were expected to file an immediate appeal in order to block Mr. Bout's release. Moscow, which shudders to think of Mr. Bout telling American authorities what he may know of the Kremlin's possible ties to illegal arms trafficking, rejoiced. And it remained undecided whether Thai courts will help bring one of the world's most dangerous men to justice, or allow him to go free to pursue his passion for tango.