Viktor Bout, the alleged arms dealer, has lost his 30-month fight against extradition from Thailand to the US. Mr Bout, wearing a helmet and body armour, was escorted aboard a US aircraft at Bangkok’s Don Muang airport by armed police and US agents on Tuesday, just four days before an extradition order expired.
Mr Bout was arrested in a Bangkok hotel in March 2008 after allegedly offering to sell US agents posing as members of Farc, the Colombian guerrilla group, weapons including surface-to-air missiles. US forces, including its air force, are heavily involved in trying to eradicate the drugs crops that Farc uses to finance its operations.
On arrival in the US, Mr Bout is to face charges of conspiring to kill US nationals, conspiracy to acquire an anti-aircraft missile and conspiracy to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist group.
The former Soviet air force officer has maintained his innocence throughout, claiming he was framed by the Drug Enforcement Administration agents.
“This is an unequivocally political decision, lobbied by the US government,” Alla Bout, his wife, told Russia's NTV network on Tuesday. “It has no legal basis whatsoever.”
Mr Bout has been accused of providing arms to regimes including the brutal administration of Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president who is on trial in The Hague for crimes against humanity, and the Taliban.
He is said to have inspired the Hollywood film “Lord of War” and a British politician once dubbed him the “merchant of death”.
Mr Bout has never denied that he ran a cargo airline using under-utilised Soviet-era planes which used to fly to some of the world’s most bitter conflicts in Africa, but says it was a legitimate operation that carried valid end-user certificates when it did transport arms.
The case became a diplomatic tug-of-war between the US, which wanted to put him on trial for aiding terrorists, and Russia, which said that Mr Bout was a legitimate businessman who had been demonised by America.
Mr Bout operated freely for years out of Russia and is believed to have cultivated close ties to the top of Russia’s military intelligence. The Russian government has lobbied hard against his extradition to the US and intelligence analysts have said they believe Russia may fear what Mr Bout could reveal under questioning by the US authorities.
Mr Bout won his first round of his battle to avoid extradition in August 2009, when a Thai court ruled that the case was politically motivated and that Mr Bout had committed no crime on Thai soil.
The court “does not have the authority to punish actions done by foreigners against other foreigners in another country” the judge said at the time.
However prosecutors filed an appeal, which they won last August. The US sent a plane to transport Mr Bout, but were forced to wait after his legal team appealed on procedural grounds. His last hope ran out on Tuesday, when the cabinet ordered his extradition.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry claimed the extradition was illegal. “We have no doubt that the illegal extradition of Victor Bout is a result of the unprecedented pressure the US brought on the Thai government and legal system,” the ministry said in a statement. “What happened has no rational explanation or justification from the point of view of the law.”
The Russian embassy in Bangkok was still scrambling to understand what happened, complaining that the Thai authorities had failed to inform them that the extradition was going ahead. “This was all done very quickly and urgently ... We are surprised at how rapidly the extradition was carried out. Viktor Bout was already on the plane just three hours after the Thai government made its decision,” the head of the embassy’s consulate, Andrei Dvornikov, said.