Thailand releases Viktor Bout to United States after two years of delay
November 17, 2010 5:00 AM
Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in a Thai prison in August.
By Seth Mydans The New York Times
BANGKOK -- Thailand on Tuesday extradited Viktor Bout, a Russian accused of arms trafficking, to the United States, abandoning the diplomatic balancing act it had conducted for more than two years between Washington and Moscow.
Two motorcades -- one apparently a decoy -- made the trip to Don Muang Airport, where about 50 police officers, including snipers, kept watch, according to local media. Shortly afterward, an airport official confirmed that Mr. Bout had left on a chartered 20-seat U.S. aircraft. Also aboard were two pilots and six officials from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Information about his movements was being closely held for security reasons, but he was expected to be arraigned today in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.
Mr. Bout, 43, is a former Soviet Air Force officer who became known as the "Merchant of Death" for what U.S. officials say is an arms trafficking network that encompassed Africa, Afghanistan and South America. He is also reputed to know the current shape of Russian intelligence, and Washington has been in a tug of war with Moscow since his arrest in March 2008 over whether he would go on trial in the United States.
Mr. Bout was arrested at a Bangkok hotel after he agreed, according to authorities, to sell millions of dollars in weapons to undercover U.S. agents posing as rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. The group has been fighting Colombia's government for decades and finances itself partly through the cocaine trade.
Russia's Foreign Ministry has said Mr. Bout is an innocent businessman, as he himself claims. On Tuesday, the ministry released a statement angrily calling the extradition illegal.
"From a legal perspective, what has occurred cannot have a rational explanation and justification," the statement said. "There is no doubt that the illegal extradition of Viktor Bout came about as a consequence of unprecedented political pressure exerted by the U.S. on the government and judicial authorities of Thailand. It is deeply regrettable that the Thai authorities succumbed to political pressure from outside and undertook the illegal extradition."
Thailand had long tried not to offend either Russia or the United States over Mr. Bout's case. In October, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva urged the two to resolve the issue on their own. "We have certainly indicated that they should talk, rather than putting all the burden on us," he said. "It would make it easy for us if they could come up with a common position because, after all, these kinds of decisions must be made with a view to maintaining good relations, which is in the interests of the Thai people and also our friends."
But Tuesday, it appeared that Thailand had whisked Mr. Bout to the airport without informing the Russians. "This information did not arrive at the embassy officially," chief of the Russian Embassy's consular service, Andrei Dvornikov, told the Interfax news agency. "There were neither notes nor telephone calls."
Mr. Bout's Thai lawyer said Thai authorities had not informed him, Mr. Bout's wife, Alla, or the Russian Embassy in Bangkok about the move.
"Alla Bout and I were so confused and shocked since they didn't inform us about the extradition," said the lawyer, Lak Nittiwattanawichan. "We just learned about this late in the morning. Yesterday, we went to visit him at the prison, and everything was normal." He said he would sue because "Thai authorities have violated the law."