BANGKOK, Thailand -- A Thai court agreed on Friday (August 20) to extradite Viktor Bout to New York, after the Russian was arrested in a Bangkok hotel during a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) sting for allegedly planning to sell weapons to Colombian rebels which could be used to kill Americans.

Dubbed the "Lord of War" and "Merchant of Death," the stout, mustachioed Mr. Bout arrived at the appeals court grinning and winking with confidence, but after hearing the final guilty verdict in the "United States of America vs. Viktor Bout" case, began crying while led away in mandatory leg chains.

"Well, now we'll just go to a U.S. court and win there instead," Mr. Bout told Russia's RIA Novosti news agency in Russian after the court issued its ruling.

He faces possible life imprisonment if convicted in New York for weapons smuggling, wiring money through New York banks, and other crimes.

Having exhausted his Bangkok court appeals, Mr. Bout's lawyer, Lak Nittiwattanawichan, said they would ask Thailand's Foreign Ministry and monarchy to set him free -- which observers said would probably not be successful.

"I appeal to Russian authorities to interfere in the case, and react the same tough way to this dishonest [American] interference, and help the citizen of the Russian Federation," Mr. Bout's weeping wife, Alla, declared in Bangkok after the verdict was announced, according to the Russian news agency Itar-Tass.

"Given that the defendant was charged with conspiring to kill American citizens and American officers, conspiring to source ... anti-aircraft missiles, and acquire weapons for a terrorist group like FARC -- these are criminal offenses not just in the country where he is a plaintiff, but also the country receiving the charges," the Bangkok court's extradition ruling said.

During a speech in Bangkok on July 16 billed as "A Renewed U.S.-Thai Alliance for the 21st Century," William J. Burns, U.S. Under Secretary for Political Affairs, expressed optimism about caging Mr. Bout.

"We appreciate the extensive campaigns that Thailand has launched to curb the trafficking of illegal drugs and arms, which notably led to the arrest in 2008 of the world's most notorious private arms dealer, Viktor Bout," Mr. Burns said.

Moscow also applied diplomatic pressure on Bangkok before the verdict, amid speculation that the Kremlin was worried Mr. Bout could implicate prominent Russians if he cut a plea bargain deal during a trial in New York.

In a surprising breach of diplomatic protocol, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov insulted Thailand's judicial system while describing the verdict on Friday (August 20).

"We are sorry about this -- in my opinion -- non-legal decision, politically motivated decision, that Thailand's court made," Mr. Lavrov said, according to Russia's TV channel RT.

"This decision, according to information we dispose, was made under strong pressure from outside, and this is sad," Mr. Lavrov said, without mentioning the United States or offering evidence.

"Concerning interests of the Russian citizen, all these months we have been giving him assistance, were in touch with his lawyers and his family, and I assure you that we will do all that is necessary to achieve his return home," the Russian Foreign Minister said.

The U.S. initially wanted Mr. Bout to stand trial in New York for allegedly plotting to sell weapons to South America's Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas, which could be used to kill Americans helping the Colombian government against the rebels.

In February, to strengthen its faltering extradition request in Bangkok, U.S. prosecutors added allegations of financial crimes, including money laundering and wire fraud conspiracy.

"Viktor Bout allegedly made a career of arming bloody conflicts and supporting rogue regimes across multiple continents, even using the U.S. banking system to secretly finance a fleet of aircraft," U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in February.

That newer indictment alleged Mr. Bout and his partner, Syrian-born U.S. citizen Richard Ammar Chichakli, wired about $1.7 million through banks in the U.S. to buy two Boeing airplanes in America, apparently to enable them to make deliveries.

Mr. Chichakli, also known as Robert Cunning and Raman Cedorov, earlier served in the U.S. Army.

He escaped arrest, and currently may be in Russia after the U.S. Treasury Department seized his assets.

That indictment also said prosecutors would seek to seize Mr. Bout's alleged accounts at Wachovia, the International Bank of Commerce, Deutsche Bank, and the Israel Discount Bank of New York, according to the New York Daily News.

Mr. Bout's alliances include Boris, Victor But, Viktor Budd, Viktor Butt, Viktor Bulakin, and Vadim Markovich Aminov, according to DEA Special Agent Robert F. Zachariasiewicz, who signed the original 2008 charges presented to the court in New York.

Mr. Bout previously worked as military translator and allegedly entered the weapons business in the 1990s.

To catch the elusive Mr. Bout, the DEA infiltrated his circle and convinced him a FARC representative wanted to meet him in Bangkok on March 6, 2008, to finalize the deal.

Worried that Mr. Bout would spot any mobile surveillance team following him through Bangkok's streets, American and Thai security forces instead positioned men at static intervals along the route from Bangkok's international airport to a five-star hotel, and each spotter then confirmed when Mr. Bout's vehicle passed by, according to reports of his arrest.

Inside the bugged hotel room, two undercover agents met Mr. Bout and allegedly discussed a deal in which he would sell a massive amount of weapons and ammunition.

Waiting Thai authorities then arrested him in the hotel room as planned.

Evidence presented at the Bangkok extradition hearings included alleged wiretapped telephone and e-mail messages to and from a U.S.-paid DEA "confidential source" who communicated with Andrew Smulian -- another purported partner of Mr. Bout.

Mr. Smulian was later arrested in the United States.

One e-mail message, allegedly from Mr. Bout to the agent, ended: "Best Regards Friend of Andrew", apparently referring to Mr. Smulian.

The DEA also displayed what it called "a map of South America that Bout reportedly used in discussions about the locations of American radar stations," which might monitor his Soviet-era cargo planes during deliveries to the FARC guerrillas.

The DEA also showed documents which they described as "notes handwritten by Bout during the meeting regarding the details of the weapons deal" in Bangkok, allegedly listing anti-aircraft guns, AK-47 assault rifles, unmanned aerial vehicles, ten million rounds of ammunition for sniper rifles and machine guns, plus rocket launchers and grenade launchers.

The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York provided the documents to the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists (FAS), which was concerned about where those weapons might be located, and how they could be seized -- especially a purported missile.

"It appears that missile on offer was the AT-4 Spigot, a wire-guided Russian missile system that has a maximum range of 2,000-2,500 meters and can penetrate up to 400-460mm of armor, depending on the type of missile used," FAS said in October.

FAS said it also wanted to locate the allegedly discussed "100 shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missiles," which could shoot down military and commercial planes.

The U.S. failed in its extradition request for Mr. Bout in August 2009 when a lower Thai court ruled that Colombia's FARC guerrillas were a "political" group, not "terrorists", and that no weapons were present when the sting operation was carried out in Bangkok.

That lower court also ruled it was not a crime for foreigners to discuss a shady business deal in Thailand, because they did not carry it out on Thai soil.

No weapons or ammunition were found in Bangkok, and the deal Mr. Bout allegedly discussed apparently involved payments and a delivery outside of Thailand.

During that initial extradition trial, it was unclear if Mr. Bout actually had access to any weapons.

Mr. Bout was supposed to be released after that decision, but the U.S. immediately added more charges -- including money laundering and wire fraud conspiracy -- prompting a fresh extradition appeal by the prosecution.

The alleged financial crimes relate to a U.S. ban against any American company or bank doing business with Mr. Bout, who reportedly hid his name behind a front company, Samar Airlines, while trying to purchase the two Boeings.

"The United Nations and the United States have long-standing sanctions against Bout that stem from, among other things, his support of the most violent and destabilizing conflicts in recent African history," U.S. Attorney Bharara said earlier.

A United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Sanctions Committee on Liberia said Mr. Bout had supported Liberia's former President Charles Taylor to destabilize neighboring Sierra Leone and steal its so-called "blood diamonds."

The U.S. now has 30 days to complete the extradition process, otherwise Mr. Bout will be released, according to the court's order.

"The NSC (National Security Council) asked me, as the chief of operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 2007, to direct the agency's tradecraft at bringing Bout to justice," said Michael A. Braun, who retired in October 2008.

"The Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Council, and the Department of State -- not to mention the United Nations, many other countries and several international human rights groups -- had been tracking Bout for several years, and all believed he posed a formidable risk to our national security and the global community," Mr. Braun said in October 2009.

"One thing is for sure: the last thing Russia wants is Bout on American soil, spilling his guts after getting a taste of American justice meted out in a federal courthouse."


Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of Hello My Big Big Honey!, a non-fiction book of investigative journalism. His web page is Asia Correspondent

(Copyright 2010 Richard S Ehrlich)