U.S. presses Thailand to hand over accused Russian arms dealer

By John Pomfret
Friday, August 20, 2010

The Obama administration and members of Congress are ratcheting up the pressure on Thailand amid worries that the Bangkok government will soon free a Russian arms merchant who is fighting extradition to the United States.

The State Department called in Thailand's ambassador this week to tell him of U.S. concerns about the potential release of Viktor Bout, who will appear in a Thai appeals court Friday.

And six senior members of Congress, three Democrats and three Republicans, issued a letter to the Thai government Wednesday contending that if Bout is freed, he would sell arms to groups that seek to kill Americans. "We find the potential release of a man responsible for countless deaths of innocents in Africa and elsewhere simply astounding," wrote the lawmakers, who included Reps. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the chairman and ranking Republican, respectively, on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Bout, who has been dubbed the "merchant of death," was indicted in federal court in 2008 for allegedly conspiring to provide weapons to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC -- which Washington has designated a foreign terrorist organization. The weapons were to be used, the indictment alleged, to kill Americans. Bout was subsequently indicted in January on separate charges of money laundering and sanctions busting in connection with gun-running activities to Afghanistan, Angola, Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Sudan.

But Bout, through numerous transport companies he controlled, also worked for the United Nations in Sudan and at one point moved cargo for the United States into Iraq following the U.S. invasion of that country in 2003.

He was arrested in March 2008 by Thai police in a five-star Bangkok hotel after a sting operation in which he allegedly arranged to sell surface-to-air missiles to U.S. agents posing as FARC guerrillas. The United States chose to conduct the sting in Bangkok because of its long relationship with Thai law enforcement, and U.S. officials assumed that Bout would be quickly turned over. However, Russia lobbied hard for Bout, who started his career as a Soviet military translator. Officials noted that, soon after Bout's arrest, Russia and Thailand agreed on the sale of a batch of Mi-17 helicopters to the Thai military.

"The Russians have been very active diplomatically," said a U.S. law enforcement official. "They have looked after one of their citizens and pushed the process very hard diplomatically."

Last August, a Thai court refused to extradite Bout after the judge announced that the FARC was not a terrorist organization. Since then, U.S. officials have kept up the pressure, with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other U.S. envoys raising the issue.

Thai officials have responded at times with irritation. "Every country's justice system is sovereign, and no one can interfere or pressure the judges," Sirisak Tiyapan, executive director of international affairs at the Thai attorney general's office, told reporters in October.

If Bout is freed, it will not be the first time in recent years that the United States has lost a weapons-related extradition case in Thailand.

In September 2008, a Thai court freed an Iranian army major, Jamshid Ghassemi, who was wanted in the United States for allegedly trying to buy missile guidance technology. Iran, too, lobbied the Thai government over that case and the court ultimately accepted the argument of the defense that Ghassemi, being a military officer, was just doing his job.

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