16 Mar 2009

Meeting Viktor Bout, the 'Merchant of Death'

ReutersBANGKOK, THAILAND – For an opening gambit, it didn’t suggest things would go that well. Viktor Bout had, at court, told me several times that the western media were untrustworthy and broadly despicable.

Here, as I approached the visitor’s window in the remand centre where he’s been languishing for a year, he was set apart from the Thai prisoners around him, in a yellow Hawaiian shirt, white popper buttons, and a pretty well-kempt moustache. He seemed immediately annoyed.

“You know I cannot have another visitor today now, as I am only allowed one per day?”

I’ll be honest – I wasn’t taking notes, but this is what I remember of our conversation that day, which I wrote down soon afterwards. After four months of trying, he – the 42-year-old Russian businessman whose client list allegedly runs from al-Qaida to Liberian warlord Charles Taylor – had suddenly decided to actually talk to me. With visible contempt.

I said I was still after an interview – the same thing I had been asking for as I hung around him and his family, mosquito-like, at their numerous court appearances to hear the extradition case that could see him stand trial in New York. “I do not know why I should do this to myself again. I keep four or five times trusting you bastards and the same thing happens. So why again?”

He had a reasonable point, and I was not looking to speak to him so he could bark on about how innocent he was. But this man is accused of arming some of the world’s nastiest people, and he hadn’t spoken to the western media properly since The New York Times in 2003. He definitely had questions to answer, if not something to say.

His extradition proceedings were not going well. They were long-winded, seemed to involve circular legal arguments and the same motion being filed and rejected again and again. Nobody seemed to understand completely what was happening in court. Plus his lawyers kept leaving.

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And then there was the US government, with all its might, set on getting him into their custody. It didn’t look good. There was a simple argument to make: that he was not about to win this extradition case through legal means alone. He needed to have his voice heard and answer all the charges he was accused of, as he was, quite frankly, with the nickname “the Merchant of Death“, losing the PR battle.

He paused, then replied. “Look, let’s be frank and serious. Not this left and right thing. I don’t trust you. I don’t know you.”

I launched into a series of partly mindless stories of the four years I had spent in Moscow. Chechnya. The Ukrainian revolution in 2004. I asked where he had really been born – given there are about two or three different versions (two of them put about by him).

He said: “Dushanbe” – the capital of Tajikistan. This was the thing with Mr Bout – I could never tell, when he seemed to grin, whether he was glad to be clearing up the details of his life, or enjoying the fact that so much mystique surrounded him.

He asked about Channel 4 News. Who we were. How ITN, which makes Channel 4 News, related to Channel 4, and essentially, who really ran the company. “Is it Fox News?” he leered, as if he felt Rupert Murdoch would eat him up. “There is always someone who controls, who decides,” he said.

I said I was about to head off to Afghanistan and asked if he had ever been. “Yes, many times”. That admission seemed to make him pause, but he carried on when we started talking about the American mission there now.

The strangest part of this experience was that talking to this man – whose fame was gained because he allegedly had fuelled so much murder and misery – was a quite entertaining and engaging experience. He would have been good company in a bar, although he could have lightened up a little.

On Afghanistan he countered: “The Russians were not that heavily involved there and we certainly didn’t, like the Americans now, have the entire world in flames. They think they can take some guy from a restaurant in Kabul one day and then the next say he is in charge and they are clever enough just to make it happen.”

Visiting hours were coming to a close. The couple next to him asked in Russian if they could get food brought in. The bell rang, ending the 30-minute visit. He put both his hands up. “That’s it. Finished.” He stood up and walked off.

UPDATE: The video report with filmed and secretly filmed interviews inside the remand centre:

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