MOSCOW — Russia reacted furiously today to news that former Soviet air force officer Viktor Bout, dubbed the “Merchant of Death” for his alleged global arms dealing, was hastily plucked from the maximum security Bangkok prison from which he’s been fending off extradition efforts for more than two years, and bundled onto a plane bound for the United States.
Mr. Bout’s extradition had been imminent since August, when a Thai court ruled that he could be sent to the US to face charges of gun running and abetting terrorism.
But Russian officials appeared blindsided by the sudden operation, in which the accused arms dealer was put on a special plane sent from Washington just hours after the Thai government issued final approval for his extradition.
“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,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
“This is nothing other than an intrusion into [proper] legal procedures. This makes questionable the independence of the Thai judicial system and decisions made by Thai authorities,” it added.
Russian media today broadcast an interview with Bout’s wife, Alla, who said she and Russian officials were deceived about the Thai government’s intentions toward her husband.
“The operation [to send him to the US] was secret,” Mrs. Bout told the Russia Today network. “The cabinet ordered the extradition of Viktor Bout, even though the prime minister of Thailand had said that while court proceedings are ongoing, he wouldn’t be extradited…. He was shipped to the United States as if he was just a thing, without his documents and without the Russian embassy being informed. The operation was so quick because it is illegal under Thai law. I plan to appeal,” she said.
The diplomatic tug-of-war over Bout began in March 2008, after he was arrested in a joint sting operation by the Royal Thai Police and the US Drug Enforcement Administration. Bout had allegedly agreed to sell $5 million worth of weaponry, including shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, to people he believed were agents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which the US considers a terrorist group.
An earlier attempt to extradite Bout failed last year when a Thai court ruled in his favor, but the US appealed to a higher court, which decided to turn him over in August.
Bout denies being a weapons merchant and claims that he ran an air cargo business that specialized in delivering goods to difficult places. But the US says that the multilingual former Soviet officer made a huge fortune shipping arms from eastern Europe into conflict zones in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America.
Viktor Baranets, a military columnist for the Moscow daily Komsomolskaya Pravda, says that US authorities never attempted to cooperate with their Russian counterparts to bring Bout to justice.
“The Russian reaction to the prosecution of Bout might have been different if the Americans had come to our side and spelled out the case against him,” says Mr. Baranets, who has interviewed Bout and says he appears to have many strong arguments in his own defense.
“As it is, we have a lot of questions. Many people in Russia believe that Bout is being framed. Some think that Bout was removed because he’s a competitor of American arms interests, or otherwise crossed them. The case against him contains a lot of strong accusations, but the substance looks thin.”
Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the State Duma’s foreign relations committee, says the issue is unlikely to derail US-Russian relations, but says it sets a dangerous precedent.
“Bout is not a citizen of the US, nor do the Americans have any evidence of him breaking the law on US soil, so why are they doing this?” he says. “It appears the US is acting like a global prosecutor, and a world judge. But who gives them this power? This looks something like Guantanamo,” where people fall into legal limbo, he says. “The principle is wrong.”