U.S. President George W. Bush's last meeting with the prime minister of Thailand was in August, a swan song moment before his departure. Yet he made time to bring up the issue of one man: Viktor Bout, also known as the Merchant of Death.
Bout, a Russian businessman who is thought to be the world's most notorious arms dealer, has been held in a Bangkok prison since he was arrested last March after a U.S.-Thai sting operation. The United States is desperate to extradite him for trial to New York, where he has been indicted for allegedly conspiring to sell millions of dollars worth of weapons to leftist rebels in Colombia.
The Bush administration "wanted the prime minister to understand that this was an issue of importance to us, given that we have a very solid legal case against Viktor Bout," said Juan C. Zarate, former deputy national security adviser for counterterrorism.
Yet Russia is equally keen to get Bout out of Thailand and back to Moscow. After a yearlong tug of war between Russia and the United States, a Thai judge could rule on Bout's fate as soon as next week.
A political chess game
Inside the cramped, humid courthouse in Bangkok, the political chess game is on full display. An American Embassy staffer routinely slips notes and whispers advice to the prosecutor, while two Russian Embassy diplomats sit behind Bout, chatting with his wife and mother.
Bout, a beefy, multilingual 42-year-old former Soviet air force officer, has repeatedly denied any involvement in illicit activities and has never been prosecuted, despite being the subject of U.N. sanctions, a Belgian money-laundering indictment and a travel ban. On the stand in Thailand, Bout claimed he ran a legitimate air cargo business and was in Bangkok to discuss selling airplanes to Thai businessmen.
From his holding cell outside the courthouse, a shackled Bout recently yelled out to reporters that his extradition hearing is "theater" and that he is the victim of an American "frame-up."
"If I am the biggest arms dealer, where is the proof?" shouted the man whose outsized life was the model for the 2005 Nicholas Cage film, "The Lord of War."
Bout has been stewing in a steamy Bangkok jail for a year, enduring conditions that he called "extremely inhumane, absolutely unsuitable for any civilized person." He has complained about the food, the heat and living with 70 other inmates in a cell designed for 20. He has clearly lost weight, no longer sporting the gut he had when arrested, and he appears fit and even intimidating.
When Bout's Thai extradition case first convened in June, it was expected to be quick and routine. Under the Thai-American extradition treaty, authorities only needed to identify Bout, prove his crimes merit a trial and show the case was not political.
But then the delays began to pile up. First, Bout's 71-year-old defense attorney took sick. Then more witnesses complained of health problems, among them Bout's wife, who said she was afflicted with back pain despite showing up at the courtroom and handing out a press release defending her husband.
Weeks turned into months
The Americans began grumbling that the delays were evidence the Russians were trying to derail the hearing so they could safely get Bout out of the country. Suddenly, every American diplomat coming through Bangkok wanted to talk about Bout.
Russia, for its part, made great efforts to get Bout out of Thailand. Experts say Bout has been useful for Russia's intelligence apparatus, and Russia does not want him going on trial in the United States.
Both sides have accused the other of trying to bribe Thai officials — a common practice in a country where the judiciary is notoriously corrupt — to win Bout's release. Russia, which sold cheap oil to Thailand last year and has talked of selling it fighter jets, summoned the Thai ambassador in Moscow and the country's foreign ministry demanded the case be investigated "objectively and impartially."
"There are these persistent reports that the Russians keep trying to make arms deals and oil deals with the Thai government as sweeteners to get Bout out," said security consultant Michael Braun, the former director of operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration who oversaw the sting operation against Bout. "The Russians will do anything. They don't want this guy back on U.S. soil with the possibility of him spilling his guts."
Tug of war
More than two dozen House lawmakers sent a letter last month to Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressing fears that he may end up in Russian hands.
"Bout's actions have threatened security of many countries and regions and destroyed the lives of tens of thousands of innocent individuals," Rep. Ed Royce, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on terrorism, said in a statement. "His extradition must be a continuing priority for the U.S. government."
Russia's Foreign Ministry dismissed the congressional concern as "bewildering."
On paper, Russia can't compete with the United States for influence in Thailand, noted Michael Montesano, a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. Relations with the U.S. date back 175 years, and Thailand has long seen tens of millions of dollars in American economic investment and aid as a counterbalance to China.
But Thailand also doesn't want to be seen as a puppet of the United States.
"The reality is that the U.S. Embassy may be leaning hard. And this may be stirring old resentments on the part of the Thais because of the United States' long record of heavy-handedness in Thailand," Montesano said.
For rights groups, the extradition is seen as the best and possibly only chance of bringing Bout to justice. London-based rights group Global Witness fears that America's efforts to improve relations with Russia may trump its desires to put Bout on trial.
"You are never going to get another shot like this. He would be incredibly foolhardy to do anything like this again," said campaigner Alexa Yearsley, who said his sources told him Russia has threatened to flood Thailand's restive south with weapons if Bout is extradited to the United States.
The presiding judge knows all too well the importance of the case, and has said he will ask the Thai Foreign Ministry to make a statement at the next hearing.
"I am in a tough position. Bilateral ties with Russia and the United States could be at stake," Judge Jitakorn Patanasiri told prosecutors. "When all this comes to an end, I might not be able to get an entry visa to either country."
Cat and mouse
The United Nations and many governments have played a cat-and-mouse game with Bout for nearly a quarter of a century, watching helplessly as he evaded sanctions and allegedly supplied weapons that fueled civil wars in South America, the Middle East and Africa.
The U.N. suspects his clients have included a rogue's gallery of warlords and dictators, including Liberia's Charles Taylor and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, the late dictator Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, now known as Congo, and both sides of the civil war in Angola. Bout, whose network of companies had as many as 50 airplanes, also reportedly supplied arms to the Taliban and, indirectly, al-Qaida — charges he has repeatedly denied.
In 2001, the U.N. imposed a travel ban on Bout for allegedly supporting the effort of Taylor's regime in Liberia to destabilize neighboring Sierra Leone and gain illicit access to diamonds. A year later, Belgium issued an international arrest warrant for Bout through Interpol, the international police agency, on charges of money laundering and criminal conspiracy.
Bout's planes even turned up in Iraq after the U.S. invasion, flying supplies for American troops and armaments destined for Iraq's defense ministry. In 2004, U.S. officials acknowledged that suspected Bout firms had operated as second and third-tier subcontractors working for FedEx and KBR, and their business links were later severed. The role played by Bout's firms in Iraq could complicate his case if he goes on trial in the U.S.
More recently, Bout has been accused of delivering weapons to Islamic militants in Somalia, the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon and pro-Russian factions in Georgia.
A large part of Bout's success, Yearsley said, is that he was given protection by Russia's military and intelligence apparatus. Authorities refused to turn him over to the Belgians or anyone else, and he lived openly in Moscow, counting Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin among his friends, Yearsley said. Soon after his arrest in Thailand, the Duma, or lower house of the Russian parliament, issued a statement calling for him to be returned to Russia.
Bout's seeming invincibility began to crack in 2007, when his case was assigned to a DEA international strike force as part of a stepped-up campaign to nab global arms dealers.
The DEA modeled its sting operation against Bout on an earlier effort to nab Syrian arms dealer Monzer Al-Kassar. Federal agents nabbed the Syrian in Spain in June 2007, after undercover agents approached him about supplying weapons to the FARC, the narco-guerrilla Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
An almost identical scheme was hatched to nab Bout. Undercover DEA agents posing as Colombian rebels lured Bout to a Bangkok luxury hotel, where he was arrested in March 2008. The four-month investigation involved meetings in Curacao, Denmark and Romania.
"When we first started talking about going after Bout, there was heated dialogue among my agents over whether we should use the same scenario we did for Al-Kassar," Braun said. "I was convinced that guys like Bout and Al-Kassar have enormous egos and simply couldn't believe that the U.S. would use the same gambit twice."
During a two-hour Bangkok meeting before his arrest, the U.S. alleges, Bout offered to sell the undercover agents surface-to-air missiles, 5,000 AK-47 firearms and ultralight, two-seater planes that could be equipped with grenade launchers and nondirectional missiles.
When told that the rebels needed weapons that could be directed at Americans, Bout asked which American flights they wanted to target and offered to provide training for rebel snipers. "We're together," he claimed, according to the court filings in New York. "We have the same enemy."