Thai court removes `Merchant of Death` extradition hurdle

The US welcomes the ruling, saying it looked forward to a speedy extradition.

Bangkok: A Thai court dismissed money-laundering and fraud charges against alleged Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, removing a major obstacle to his extradition to the United States.

A Thai appeals court in August ordered the so-called "Merchant of Death" be handed over to Washington on terrorism charges, angering Russia, but the process has been held up by technicalities over the new accusations.

Thailand`s Criminal Court, citing insufficient evidence, on Tuesday dismissed proceedings surrounding the new charges against Bout, who is said to have inspired the Hollywood film "Lord of War" starring Nicolas Cage.

"State prosecutors will not appeal and will work on the extradition process," said Sirisak Tiyapan, director of International Affairs at the Attorney General`s Office.

Washington welcomed the ruling, saying it looked forward to a "speedy extradition".

"We look forward to having Viktor Bout in a prison near us very soon," State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters.

Russia said it was counting on the Thai judiciary`s independence to handle Bout`s US extradition objectively, and warned Washington against meddling in the case.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also denied any "trade-off" between Washington and Moscow on the Russian national.

"We have no intention of interfering in the affairs of (Thai) justice and we are counting on the fact that others will not try to influence it," Russian news agencies late Tuesday quoted Lavrov as saying.

The long-running extradition battle may not be over yet because Bout`s defence lawyer has said he plans a last-ditch legal challenge against the extradition order issued in August.

Bout, a 43-year-old former Soviet air force pilot, was arrested in 2008 after a sting operation in Bangkok involving undercover US agents posing as rebels from Colombia`s FARC rebels, considered a terrorist group by Washington.

He has repeatedly denied suggestions that he was a former KGB agent and maintains that he ran a legitimate air cargo business.

Wearing a bullet-proof vest and shackles, he was escorted to court from a high-security Bangkok prison by a team of police commandos for a second straight day of hearings on Tuesday.

The Russian appeared dejected as he left court, reiterating to reporters that he could not expect a fair trial in the United States.

His wife Alla Bout said the United States was trying to use her husband "as a scapegoat to undermine Russian influence".

"The United States wants to stage a big show trial and hang on him everything that they don`t know who committed anywhere in the world."

He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted in the United States on charges including conspiracy to kill US nationals and providing material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organisation.

The case has put Thailand in a difficult diplomatic spot between key ally the United States and Russia, which has strongly opposed extradition.

A furious Moscow previously said the extradition attempt was politically motivated and vowed "to do everything necessary" to bring Bout home, sparking speculation that Bout may have knowledge of sensitive information.

The final decision on whether to send him to the US could rest with Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

"In accordance with the law, ultimately the executive has the power to decide, but I would rather wait for the court ruling," Abhisit told reporters last week.

A US indictment accuses Bout of using a fleet of cargo planes to transport weapons and military equipment to parts of the world including Africa, South America and the Middle East.

Washington, which has described Bout as "one of the world`s most prolific arms traffickers," has lobbied hard for his extradition, and sent a private jet to pick him up in August that was left waiting on the tarmac.

Bout has maintained his innocence from the day he was detained in the Thai capital after allegedly agreeing to supply surface-to-air missiles in a series of covert meetings that also took him to Denmark and Romania.

US prosecutors claim he agreed to the sale with the understanding that the weapons were to be used to attack US helicopters.

Bureau Report

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