Viktor Bout wears flak jacket to Bangkok court

Viktor Bout is reputed to be one of the world`s most prolific arms dealers.

Bangkok: Alleged Russian arms smuggler, Viktor Bout, arrived at a Bangkok court on Monday in a bulletproof vest for a crucial hearing that could finally determine if he will be extradited to the United States.

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 been jailed in Bangkok since March 2008 when a US-led sting operation ended years of searching for the elusive Russian who has been referred to as "The Merchant of Death”.

Washington had expected Bout`s rapid extradition but the case spurred a diplomatic tug-of-war with Moscow that led to long delays. Experts say Bout has knowledge of Russia`s military and intelligence operations and Moscow does not want him to go on trial in the United States.

Bout was shackled at the ankles and for the first time in several court appearances wore a flak jacket as armed commandos escorted him to a holding cell ahead of Monday`s afternoon hearing.

Asked if he expected a fair trial in the US, Bout shouted to reporters from his cell: "For sure no fair trial!"

An Appeals Court ordered Bout`s extradition on August 20, reversing a lower court`s decision from a year earlier. But a second set of charges filed by the US between the two rulings have caused a legal bottleneck that blocked his immediate extradition.

Thai prosecutors on Monday are formally requesting the extra charges be dropped, at Washington`s request. The Bangkok Criminal Court must then rule whether or not to dismiss the new charges of money laundering and wire fraud.

There`s one possible twist: Under Thai law a defendant has the right to object to charges against him being dropped. That means Bout could object to dropping the charges as a way to stall his extradition, a stance that his lawyer has said he will take.

If that happens, Bout could delay the extradition or — if a legal process drags on — scuttle it entirely.

When the Appeals Court cleared the way for Bout`s extradition in August it said the extradition must take place within three months, or roughly by November 20.

Bout`s high-profile arrest at a Bangkok luxury hotel in March 2008 was part of an elaborate sting in which US agents posed as arms buyers for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which Washington classifies as a terrorist organisation.

Bout was subsequently indicted in the US on four terrorism-related charges and faces a maximum penalty of life in prison if convicted.

The head of a lucrative air transport empire, Bout long evaded UN and US sanctions aimed at blocking his financial activities and restricting his travel. He has denied any involvement in illicit activities and said he ran a legitimate business.

The 2005 movie "Lord of War" starring Nicolas Cage is loosely based on Bout`s life. He allegedly supplied weapons that fuelled civil wars in South America, the Middle East and Africa, with clients including Liberia`s Charles Taylor, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and both sides of the civil war in Angola.

Bureau Report