An appeals court in Thailand ruled Friday that suspected Russian arms smuggler Viktor Bout can be extradicted to the United States, effectively ending a more than decade-long chase for the man dubbed "The Merchant of Death."
The decision overturns a lower court's rejection of the U.S. extradition request. The court said Bout must be extradited within three months or would be free to return to Russia.
Bout, a 43-year-old former Soviet air force officer, is reputed to be one of the world's most prolific arms dealers. He has allegedly supplied weapons that fueled civil wars in South America, the Middle East and Africa, with clients including Liberia's Charles Taylor and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and both sides of the civil war in Angola.
Shackled in leg irons, Bout cried after the verdict was read and hugged his wife and daughter.
"This is the most unfair decision possible," his wife told reporters, speaking in Russian through a translator. "It is known the world over that this is a political case."
Bout says he is the victim of an American "frame-up." During testimony, Bout claimed he ran a legitimate air cargo business and was in Bangkok to discuss selling airplanes to Thai businessmen.
The case has become the center of a diplomatic tug-of-war between Moscow and Washington, both of which want Bout turned over.
Russia 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.
"We regret this ... unlawful, political decision," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said during a visit to Armenia. He said Moscow believes the ruling was made "under very strong external pressure" and would continue to seek Bout's return to Russia.
Lawyers vows to fight extradition
Bout's lawyer Lak Nittiwattanawichan also called the extradition politically motivated and said he would try to keep fighting the extradition.
"I am going to submit a request to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Cabinet. I will also submit a request to the king and queen."
Bout was arrested in March 2008 at a Bangkok luxury hotel as part of an elaborate sting in which U.S. agents posed as arms buyers for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which Washington classifies as a terrorist organization.
After his arrest, Bout was indicted in the United States on charges of conspiring to sell millions of dollars worth of weapons to FARC, including more than 700 surface-to-air missiles, thousands of guns, high-tech helicopters and airplanes outfitted with grenade launchers and missiles.
In August 2009, the Bangkok Criminal Court rejected the extradition request. It said that Thailand considers the FARC a political movement and not a terrorist group, and that extradition under a Thai-U.S. treaty could not be granted for a political offense.
But the appeals court disagreed, saying the case was not a political one but a clear cut criminal case and Bout should go to New York to answer to criminal charges.
"The court has decided to overturn (the lower court verdict). Now Viktor Bout would have be extradited to the U.S. within three months according to the extradition act," the ruling said.
'Highest priority to the United States'
Bout has never been prosecuted, despite being the subject of U.N. sanctions, a Belgian money-laundering indictment and a travel ban.
U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Thursday that the Thai ambassador in Washington was summoned to the State Department this week so that U.S. officials could "emphasize that this is of the highest priority to the United States."
Thai prosecutors appealed the lower court's ruling on Washington's request. And in February, U.S. prosecutors filed new charges in hopes of convincing reluctant officials in Thailand to extradite Bout despite Russia's objections.
Model for Hollywood film
The new charges say Bout and his former business associate, Richard Chichakli, used a series of front companies to purchase two planes from U.S. companies in 2007, in violation of U.S. and United Nations sanctions. At the time, U.S. officials intervened to block the sale.
Bout's nickname arose from his 1990s-era notoriety for running a fleet of aging Soviet-era cargo planes to conflict-ridden hotspots in Africa. A high-ranking minister at Britain's Foreign Office first used the nickname in 2000 to single out Bout for his arms role in Africa.
The 2005 Nicolas Cage film, "The Lord of War," is widely believed to be modeled after Bout's life.