Viktor Bout extradited to face US arms charges
Viktor Bout has left the building.
That building being the Bangkwang Prison in Bangkok, where he has spent the two and half years fighting an extradition request from the United States.
Mr Bout (pronounced Boot) was arrested in March 2008 after a US-run sting operation at a hotel in Bangkok. Agents say he offered to sell millions of dollars’ worth of weapons to undercover United States agents posing as rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
Mr Bout says he was on vacation in Thailand and denies ever selling or trading in weapons. Yet the former soviet air force officer has developed quite a reputation over the years.
Nicknamed the “Merchant of Death“, the 48-year-old is accused of running a vast arms business through a complex web of companies and associates. The charge sheet goes like this: guns, ammunition, tanks and helicopters, delivered to a wide variety of unstable locations, including Afghanistan, Angola, Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Sudan.
Viktor Bout says he is innocent – an honest businessman running a legitimate air-cargo business. He says the business became unprofitable and was shut down in 2001.
He fought a dogged legal battle against his extradition in the Thai courts. The Bangkok criminal court ruled in his favour in August 2009 but the US won on appeal one year later. Ultimately, the only person who could stop the extradition, Thai prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, decided there were ‘no good reasons’ not to. He was handed over to US officials in a slick and carefully planned operation this morning.
Mr Bout’s future may hang on whether he is willing to make a deal with US treasury officials. They think he has got plenty of insider knowledge on global criminal networks. If true and he is willing to spill the beans, he may avoid a life-time jail sentence.
Otherwise, he’ll be swapping one maximum security prison for another.