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U.S. asks Thailand to extradite Russia's 'Merchant of Death'

RIA Novosti

14/03/2008 13:31 MOSCOW, March 14 (RIA Novosti) - The Thai Foreign Ministry has received an official request from the United States for the extradition of a suspected Russian arms dealer in jail in Thailand, the suspect's lawyer said on Friday.

Viktor Bout, 41, was arrested in a luxury hotel in Bangkok last week in a joint police operation led by the U.S. Washington is seeking Bout's extradition on charges of illegal weapons deals with militant groups, including the Taliban and al-Qaeda, in Middle East and African countries.

"The Thai Foreign Ministry has received the American documents: an extradition request, a warrant and so on. They are being translated now and will be passed on to a court," Viktor Burobin said.

He said his client could receive up to 15 years in jail if extradited and convicted in the U.S.

"I believe there is a fifty-fifty chance he may be tried in Thailand or extradited to the United States," the lawyer said, adding that Bout's extradition to Russia was doubtful.

He reiterated that the U.S. authorities had no grounds to press charges against his client because "he has never committed crime on American soil."

Bout is a former lieutenant in the Russian military who quit the armed forces in 1991. He then allegedly transformed himself into an international arms dealer, earning the nickname 'the Merchant of Death.' Nicholas Cage's character in the 2005 Hollywood film, 'Lord of War,' is said to be based on Bout's alleged 'career' as an arms dealer.

The U.S. Justice Department's latest charges against Bout include a deal to sell and deliver surface-to-air missiles, helicopters and rocket launchers to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The group is listed as a terrorist organization in the U.S.

Bout is also believed to have had close ties with former Liberian president Charles Taylor, currently on trial in The Hague on charges of war crimes. A former militia commander and prosecution witness described on Wednesday how weapons were delivered to Sierra Leone by Taylor and a white male "with a big stomach."

U.N. reports say Bout set up a network of more than 50 cargo aircraft around the world to facilitate his arms shipments.

Western law enforcement agencies consider him to be "the most prominent foreign businessman" involved in trafficking arms to UN-embargoed destinations. They claim he carried out his weapons shipments from Bulgaria, Slovakia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and other countries.

The Russian branch of Interpol confirmed that Interpol had issued warrants for Bout's arrest in 2002.

Thai authorities denied Bout bail on Tuesday saying he could attempt to flee the country. Bout denies the arms dealing charges and claims he came to Thailand as a tourist.



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