Alleged arms smuggler sought by the US testifies in Thailand
Businessman denies selling weapons to rebels
BANGKOK - A Russian businessman dubbed the "Merchant of Death" for allegedly arming dictators and guerrillas told a Thai court yesterday he was not involved in a scheme to sell weapons to Colombian rebels, as he sought to prevent his extradition to the United States.
Viktor Bout, a former Soviet Air Force officer, has long been linked to some of Africa's most notorious conflicts, allegedly supplying arms to former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor and Libyan leader Moammar Khadafy. He has repeatedly denied any involvement in illicit activities and has never been prosecuted, despite being the subject of UN sanctions and a travel ban.
The United States is seeking Bout's extradition on charges he conspired to sell millions of dollars worth of weapons, including 100 surface-to-air missiles and armor-piercing rockets to leftist rebels.
The 41-year-old Russian - who was purportedly the model for the arms dealer portrayed by Nicolas Cage in the 2005 movie, "Lord of War" - was arrested in March during a sting operation in which undercover US agents posed as rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish acronym, FARC. The leftist group, which has been fighting Colombia's government for more than four decades, is listed by the United States as a terror group.
But yesterday, dressed in an orange prison uniform with shackles around his ankles, he told the court he was set up by the Americans. "I never met anyone from FARC. I've never talked to anyone from FARC," Bout told the court. "I didn't do anything wrong in Thailand."
UN reports have said Bout parlayed his contacts in the post-Soviet arms industry into a weapons-dealing business, setting up a network of more than 50 aircraft around the world to supply arms that fueled a litany of conflicts, mostly in Africa. The UN suspects his clients included Taylor, Khadafy, the late dictator Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, now known as Congo, and both sides of the civil war in Angola.
The world body imposed a travel ban on him that accused him of supporting efforts by Taylor's regime in Liberia to destabilize neighboring Sierra Leone.
Bout scoffed at the UN allegations yesterday, telling the court that his aviation business only shipped "legal items."
"The UN is not a court," he said, his voice rising as he waved his hands in the air. "It is a group of countries and it doesn't have the capacity to check what I send on my planes."
The extradition hearing has drawn an unusually vigorous response from Russia, according to Douglas Farah, who wrote the 2007 book on Bout, "Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible." The coauthor of the book, Stephen Braun, is an editor at the Washington bureau of the Associated Press.
Farah said the Russian government has run sympathetic stories in government media about Bout and lobbied senior Thai officials for his release. Two officials from Russia's Embassy in Thailand were in court yesterday.
The Duma, or lower house of parliament, has also issued a statement calling for him to be returned to Russia.
"The Russians have made great efforts to get him out beyond what they would do for a normal Russian citizen," Farah said. "Over the years, he's been incredibly useful to the Russian intelligence apparatus particularly in delivering weapons to states such as Iran and their proxies in Lebanon."
Farah said the Russian government is concerned that he could reveal details about his dealings with Moscow were he to be put on trial in the United States. "I think they would prefer to have him back in Moscow under their control than having him testify in open court in the United States," Farah said.
Facing the judges in a wooden chair yesterday, Bout often appeared agitated as he detailed his arrest and nine-month detention in a Bangkok prison. But at one point, he turned and flashed a victory sign and smiled at his mother, who along with his wife attended the hearing.
Bout testified that he came to Bangkok "to relax" and meet with several Thai executives "who wanted to purchase airplanes."
"I did not commit any terrorist acts," Bout said.
Bout and his attorneys offered up a laundry list of reasons he should be set free: The arrest warrant was flawed. He committed no crime in Thailand. The United States had no business prosecuting him. He is a victim of worsening relations between the United States and Russia.
Bout faces charges in the United States of conspiring to kill Americans, conspiring to kill US officers or employees, conspiring to provide material support to terrorists and conspiring to acquire and use an antiaircraft missile. He could face a maximum penalty of life in prison if convicted.