A court in Thailand has ruled that a Russian man reputed to be one of the world's most prolific arms dealers is to be extradited to the United States, more than two years after his arrest.
The court ordered Viktor Bout’s extradition within three months, overturning a lower court's ruling.
Bout, a 43-year-old former Soviet Air Force officer dubbed the "Merchant of Death," has allegedly supplied weapons that fueled civil wars in South America, the Middle East, and Africa.
Bout made no comment after the verdict. But his wife, Alla, said the latest ruling was "the most unfair decision possible."
"I believe that in this issue there's been tremendous pressure from the American side. The Americans have been quite open in letting the world know that they will exert pressure on the Thai side to get my husband extradited to the U.S," she said.
Bout's lawyer, Lak Nittiwattanawichan, said he would petition the Thai government to block extradition, and said his client would not receive a fair trial in the United States.
"The treaty between Thailand and the United States of America for extradition says that the institution that makes the decision to extradite is the government. The government will be the last instance to make the decision whether to extradite or not," Lak said.
Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva insisted the ruling was not influenced by politics and said Bangkok aimed to maintain good relations with both the United States and Russia.
The ruling was welcomed by Washington, which called in the Thai ambassador this week to emphasize the case was "of the highest priority of the United States," in the words of a State Department spokesman. Acting Deputy Attorney General Gary Grindler said today Washington was "extremely pleased" with the decision.
But it's been condemned by Russia, whose foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said Moscow would do all it could to secure Bout's return home.
"We regret what in my opinion is an unlawful, political decision that the appeals court in Thailand has made. According to the information available to us, this decision was made under very strong pressure from the outside. This is sad," Lavrov said.
The Russian Foreign Ministry has summoned Thailand's ambassador to express its "disappointment and bewilderment" at the Thai court's verdict.
Bout has been imprisoned since his arrest at a Bangkok luxury hotel in March 2008.
He was caught in a sting operation involving U.S. agents who posed as arms buyers for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which Washington classifies as a terrorist organization.
Bout was indicted in the United States on terrorism-related charges that include conspiring to sell millions of dollars worth of weapons to FARC, including surface-to-air missiles, guns, helicopters, and airplanes outfitted with grenade launchers and missiles. He was also charged with conspiring to kill Americans and conspiring to provide material support to terrorists.
Bout could face a maximum penalty of life in prison if convicted.
The Russian is pleading not guilty on U.S. charges, saying he is the victim of a U.S. "frame-up."
In August 2009, the Bangkok Criminal Court rejected an extradition request, saying Thailand considers FARC a political movement -- not a terrorist group. The United States appealed against that ruling.
The appeals court on August 20 ruled that the charges against Bout were considered criminal, not political.
The head of an air-transport empire, Bout has long evaded United Nations and U.S. sanctions aimed at blocking his financial activities and restricting his travel. His clients allegedly included Liberia's Charles Taylor and Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi and both sides of the civil war in Angola.
Bout has denied any involvement in illicit activities, claiming he ran a legitimate business.
But his alleged exploits inspired the 2005 Hollywood movie "Lord of War," starring Nicolas Cage.
compiled from agency reports