20 Aug 2010

Viktor Bout: the story of the 'Merchant of Death'

It was actually, really, quite a surprise. After all the wrangling, the endless conspiracy theories, and the melodrama, it seems like Viktor Bout – the man who’s been dubbed the world’s biggest arms dealer, the Merchant of Death – is going America to face trial.

It’s been two and a half years since Viktor Bout was arrested in a Bangkok hotel in what you can only describe as a pretty heavily contrived sting operation. The American Drug Enforcement Agency had found a former colleague of Bout’s and got him to introduce to the alleged arms dealer some men pretending to work for the Colombian rebel group FARC – deemed a terrorist outfit by the US.

They met in a hotel and the Thai police swooped. Then began the extradition battle. Thailand and America have a very chummy extradition treaty which does not require that America proves the merit of the charges it wants someone to face. It simply has to prove that there are charges for him to face.

But still, Russia pulled out all the stops to help a man who has become, in parts of Russian society, a wronged international businessman. A victim of his own mythology and American meddling. The whipping boy for America in a globalised world in which someone needs to be blamed for flow of arms.

There is another take on Bout though – that he’s a man who sold arms to al-Qaeda, former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, to Congolese warlords… just about anyone it’s reprehensible to sell arms to.

He denies all that, but has always kept the suspicions alive by admitting to working for people and in places that make the harsher accusations more sound plausible than if he claimed he was simply a textile merchant born in Tajikistan.

He told me once, for instance, that his planes did make legal arms shipments for the Northern Alliance government during Afghanistan’s “Nineties Civil War”. He told me he was close personal friends with Jean Pierre Bemba, a former Congolese leader now facing war crimes charges in The Hague.

But still, as the speculation raged, the court appearances dragged on. The judges kept kicking the ball into the long grass – delaying the next date for a decision on the extradition request, and then allowing the Americans to appeal the first court decision that the extradition request was political in nature.

I personally began to feel that the best solution for the Thai government – caught between the Americans and the Russians – was to keep him in custody, to not let a decision happen. After all, on paper, what’s the PR difference between a two and a half year process and a five year one?

But today something close to a final result was given. America’s appeal of the last verdict was granted. The appeal court ruled the extradition was not political and should go ahead.

There are two complicating factors.

As perhaps a failsafe, the Americans lodged this morning another extradition request about new charges they’ve lodged against Bout since he was first arrested. These concern money laundering and fraud. The judge said these charges must be dealt with in three months or else Bout will go free.

But, as the Americans seem to now have their man, it’s widely thought they will now drop these charges in Thailand and press for his swift passage to the States where he’ll soon appear in a New York federal court.

Another possible hiccup comes if the Thai government decides it does not want to let the extradition happen for political reasons. Many observers think that, given the political sensitivities of the case were probably debated before the verdict was given, it’s unlikely the Thai government would want to be seen overruling one of its own courts in favour of an alleged arms dealer and against its main regional ally, America.

So there we have it. Bout and his wife Alla looked shattered. Beaten almost. They will fight on, but it seems like this chapter of the epic story of Viktor Bout is over for now.