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Thai court stalls Bout extradition
Bangkok refuses to drop new charges against suspected Russian arms smuggler, delaying his extradition to the US.
Last Modified: 04 Oct 2010 14:55 GMT

Russia has lobbied to have Bout, a former Soviet air force officer, released from Thailand's prison [Reuters]

A Thai court has rejected a request to drop new charges against Viktor Bout, a suspected Russian arms smuggler, delaying a two-year bid by the United States to extradite him.

The Bangkok Criminal Court ruled on Monday to press ahead with accusations of fraud and money laundering, which must be dropped in order for him to be extradited.

The former Soviet air officer, once described as the "Merchant of Death", is wanted on suspicion of trafficking arms to dictators and conflict zones around the world since the 1990s.

He was to be extradited from Thailand in August to face trial for conspiring to sell weapons to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), that country's largest rebel group, after being arrested in a US-led sting operation in March 2008.

But it was postponed due to legal complications arising from the latest charges.

'Political persecution'

Bout has repeatedly denied arms trafficking charges, saying that he ran a legitimate air cargo business and was in Bangkok to discuss selling planes when he was arrested.

The 43-year-old has argued that his life would be in danger if he was sent to the US because of a possible death sentence.

On Monday he said claims that he was one of the world's most prolific arms dealers was a "fantasy".

"I did nothing wrong. I am a victim of political persecution," he said after the court ruling.

But he added that the latest decision would give him more time to battle the US extradition request.

A Thai appeals court on August 20 had ruled to allow his extradition to the United States - a blow to Russia which had lobbied for his release and described the verdict as"unlawful".

But ahead of that decision, US prosecutors filed new charges of wire fraud and money laundering in the hope of keeping him locked up if the verdict was not in Washington's favour.

Now that move is stalling the extradition process and could potentially scuttle it if there are long delays.

The criminal court said it would rule on Tuesday over whether Bout should face extradition on the new charges.

If he is found guilty, his lawyers are expected to lodge another appeal, delaying the extradition process further.

The defence has also said it will seek to have the entire case restarted on grounds the appeals' court lacked proper authority to order his extradition.

Thailand is one of Washington's biggest allies in Asia, but Russia is a big investor in Thailand's thriving tourism sector.

Bout, who was inspiration for Nicholas Cage's character in the 2005 movie Lord of War has been held in a Thai maximum-security prison since his arrest in March 2008.

Aggressive lobbying by Moscow for his release has fuelled speculation he was receiving protection from Russian authorities who had made no apparent attempt over the years to interfere in his alleged operations.

Source:
Agencies
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