Alleged Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, the so-called “Merchant of Death”, arrived at a court in Thailand in a bullet-proof vest on Monday for the next legal hurdle in his US extradition case.
Bout, guarded by a team of police commandos, was taken from a high-security Bangkok prison to Thailand’s Criminal Court for a hearing that could clear the way for his handover to the United States on terrorism charges.
Asked by reporters at the court whether he thought he would receive a fair trial in the US, the 43-year-old former Soviet air force pilot replied: “No. Of course not.”
Bout was expected to be flown out in August on the order of a Thai appeals court, but the process – which has forced Thailand into a delicate position with the United States and Russia – faced a last-minute hold-up.
New charges of money-laundering and fraud – introduced by US prosecutors earlier this year in an apparent attempt to aid the extradition case – have to be dealt with before he can be expelled from Thailand.
Thai prosecutors said ahead of the hearing they believed the court would allow the charges to be dropped, theoretically clearing the way for Bout to be handed over to a frustrated Washington.
“To my understanding, it is likely that the court will allow the second charges to be withdrawn, there is no obstacle,” said Sirisak Tiyapan, director of International Affairs at the Attorney-General’s Office.
The speed of any extradition after that would depend on the readiness of other state agencies, he added.
Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva could have the final say, however, with recent reports suggesting that the decision over whether to extradite Bout was his as head of state.
“In accordance with the law, ultimately the executive has the power to decide, but I would rather wait for the court ruling,” Abhisit told reporters last week, further muddying the waters.
The fate of Bout – who was said to have inspired the Hollywood film “Lord of War” starring Nicolas Cage – has forced Thailand into a diplomatic balancing act.
The United States has traditionally been a close ally of the kingdom but Bangkok has also stressed it wants to maintain warm ties with Russia, an important trading partner.
A furious Moscow previously said the extradition attempt was politically motivated.
Bout faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted in the United States on charges including conspiracy to kill US nationals and to provide material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organisation.
The Russian, thought to speak six languages and go by at least seven different aliases, has been fighting extradition since his March 2008 arrest after a Bangkok sting operation.
He allegedly agreed to supply millions of dollars of weapons to undercover US agents in Thailand posing as rebels from Colombia’s Marxist FARC group, which Washington considers a terrorist organisation.
A US indictment accuses Bout of using a fleet of cargo planes to transport weapons and military equipment to parts of the world including Africa, South America and the Middle East.
It alleges that the arms he has sold or brokered have fuelled conflicts and supported regimes in Afghanistan, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Sudan.
A Thai criminal court had ruled last year that it did not have the authority to extradite Bout because FARC was not listed as a terrorist group in Thailand – a decision overturned by the appeals court in August.
The nickname “Merchant of Death” was coined by a former British foreign office minister and also used for a 2007 book on Bout’s alleged activities.