Monday, October 4, 2010

Thailand Russia the USA and a notorious Russian arms Trader

NABBED in Bangkok in March 2008 by an American sting operation, Viktor Bout, a notorious Russian arms trader, has not gone quietly. America wants to extradite him to stand trial on charges of criminal conspiracy. On August 20th, with the ruling of a court of appeals, America appeared to have got its way. But Mr Bout has stayed put and resisted any quick handover. He insists that he is a legitimate air-cargo operator framed by a perfidious superpower. Russia has lobbied strongly for his release. Thailand meanwhile has fumbled for a way to placate both parties.

On Monday, Bout was back in court in Bangkok. Thai prosecutors had applied to drop two additional charges that had been filed against Bout before the August 20th verdict, as insurance in case he won the appeal. The defence argued, paradoxically, that the two charges must first be heard in court, per the defendant’s wish. Under Thailand’s criminal law, defendants have this right. The judge eventually agreed, so the case goes on. But it seems certain to proceed at a more rapid clip than before. The judge set the next hearing for Tuesday. He also said that no witnesses would be invited to testify.

Under Thai law, a defendant must be extradited within 90 days of a final verdict. American officials are worried that Bout’s defence team will run out the clock on the timer set by the August 20th ruling; a quick hearing of the outstanding charges suits the prosecution. This trial already has a record of veering off course.

Legal shenanigans are to be expected of Bout. He has faced the wrath of UN investigators and law-enforcement agencies in several countries, yet every time he managed to get away. In Bangkok, the American prosecutors are determined to get their man. The elaborate sting operation that lured him to Thailand was hatched by America’s Drug Enforcement Agency (the DEA). Its agents posed as representatives of FARC, a Colombian terrorist organisation. Mr Bout was allegedly caught on tape offering to supply them with a dazzling range of sophisticated weaponry.

But the resulting extradition process has not gone as smoothly as Washington’s bureacrats had expected. Russia has batted hard for its national, and senior officials have warned that his removal to America would jeopardise bilateral relations.

Caught in the middle, Thailand has muddied the waters further. The judge in the first hearing said he could not extradite Mr Bout because FARC is not a banned terrorist group in Thailand. An MP from the governing party later paid a secret visit to see Bout in prison and apparently tried to get some dirt on Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister accused of fomenting violent revolt at home.

Thailand’s prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, who must sign off on any extradition, has been lobbied by both America and Russia. At some point, he will have to disappoint one of them.

Monday’s court appearance was cinematic stuff. Armed Thai commandos escorted Bout, who was shackled with leg irons and dressed in brick-red pyjamas, into the courthouse. Inside the court, as the judge began to read out his ruling, Bout objected loudly to the Thai-English interpreter provided to him. He demanded a Russian speaker. When the interpreter continued, Bout turned to the gallery and raised his arms. “Is this due process of law or what? Gentlemen, you are witnesses,” he implored, speaking in English. As tensions rose, the judge barked out the rest of the ruling and retreated in a huff. He returned later to fix the next hearing, set for Tuesday.

During the lull in proceedings, Bout chatted with foreign reporters in the courtroom. He complained that the ruling was mysterious to him, as he had not been given a proper translation. “I don’t know what is happening. It’s like a circus,” he said. He dismissed the additional charges filed against him—money laundering and wire fraud—as baseless. But he added that the future was still murky. “Everything is possible in this country, with special American influence…We will see,” said Bout.

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