(AFP) – Nov 17, 2010
NEW YORK — Suspected Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout was jailed here Wednesday after being extradited from Thailand to face charges of conspiring to sell surface-to-air missiles and other weapons to Colombian rebels.
Bout, who arrived aboard a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) charter plane, is due to appear in a US federal court on Wednesday before US District Judge Shira Scheindlin.
US Attorney General Eric Holder called it "a victory for the rule of law worldwide," and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos told reporters in Bogota Bout "should pay."
The former Soviet air force pilot's sudden extradition from Thailand followed a long legal battle and intense opposition from Moscow, which denounced the move as "extreme injustice" and said it would support him "by all means".
Russian fury over the extradition raised suspicions that it feared exposure of Bout's secrets, accumulated in a long and shadowy career supplying arms to combatants in conflicts in Africa and elsewhere around the world.
Escorted by dozens of armed police commandos and with snipers deployed along the route, he was whisked from a maximum security Bangkok prison to a waiting US government plane on Tuesday before his wife had a chance to say goodbye.
"The operation had to be carried out quickly because of the possibility of an ambush and assassination on the way," Colonel Supisarn Bhakdinarunart, commander of Thailand's Crime Suppression Division, told AFP.
The inspiration for the Hollywood movie "Lord of War," Bout assembled a fleet of cargo planes and built a business delivering goods to the world's hot spots.
He was arrested in March 2008 in Bangkok after a sting by US DEA operatives posing as buyers for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, a leftist guerrilla group.
US authorities allege he agreed to sell the undercover agents millions of dollars' worth of weapons, including surface-to-air missiles and armor piercing rocket launchers, for use against US helicopters in Colombia.
"Viktor Bout allegedly jumped at the chance to arm narco-terrorists bent on killing Americans with an arsenal of military grade weapons," US Attorney Preet Bharara said.
He said the extradition "underscores our commitment to protect Americans on our own soil and throughout the world."
A Thai appeals court in August ordered the Russian to be handed over to the United States but the process was held up by technicalities over new accusations filed by Washington in an attempt to strengthen its case.
Bout has maintained his innocence from the day he was detained in the Thai capital, repeatedly denying suggestions that he was a former KGB agent and maintains that he ran a legitimate air cargo business.
Washington, which has described Bout as "one of the world's most prolific arms traffickers", lobbied hard for his extradition, putting Thailand in a difficult diplomatic spot between the United States and Russia.
The Russian embassy in Bangkok said it had been taken by surprise by the timing of the extradition, which left Bout's wife, Alla, in tears.
"The embassy got no official information from the Thais. It seems a little strange for us. It was done in such a hurry," said Andrey Dvornikov, head of the consular section.
"They have given nothing, no warning for the embassy, for the wife, for the lawyer -- nothing," he told AFP.
Moscow appeared stunned into silence for a few hours -- until its foreign ministry and top diplomat unleashed a dual torrent of criticism against the United States.
"There is no doubt that illegal extradition of V. A. Bout came as a consequence of unprecedented political pressure that the United States put on the government and the judicial authorities of Thailand," the foreign ministry said in a statement.
"This cannot have any other name but intervention in the pursuit of justice and puts under question the independence of the Thai justice system and the decisions taken by Thailand," the Russian statement said.
Thailand for its part expressed confidence there would be no rift with Moscow.
"This decision will not create a problem with Russia because our foreign ministry has already talked with Russia," Tawin Pleansri, the secretary-general of the National Security Council, told reporters.
"It's our decision, no matter whether Russia agrees or not."
Bout, who speaks six languages and has used at least seven separate identities, faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted in the United States on charges including conspiracy to kill US nationals and providing material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization.
Washington alleges that the arms he has sold or brokered have fuelled conflicts and supported regimes in Afghanistan, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Sudan.
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