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Viktor Bout extradition stalled by Thai ruling

- Associated Press - Monday, October 4, 2010

BANGKOK | Reputed Russian arms smuggler Viktor Bout's long-awaited extradition to the U.S. hit another delay Monday when a Thai court ruled that it needs to consider other charges filed against him by Washington.

The ruling by the Bangkok Criminal Court is another blow to the U.S., which had expected Mr. Bout's rapid extradition after a Thai appeals court gave its approval on Aug. 20. He faces trial in the U.S. on four terrorism-related charges and could face life in prison.

The delay stems from a second set of charges filed against Mr. Bout by Washington as a precautionary measure to secure his extradition, a move that ironically is stalling the process and even could scuttle it if there are long legal delays.

The criminal court said it would rule Tuesday on whether Mr. Bout should face extradition on the new charges of money laundering and wire fraud, noting that the decision can be appealed.

Mr. 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 U.S.-led sting operation ended years of searching for the elusive Russian, who has been referred to as "the Merchant of Death."

Dressed in an orange prison uniform and shackled at the ankles, Mr. Bout said the latest ruling would give him more time to battle the U.S. extradition request.

"There is enough time now to prove that the charges in my first case were biased and unfounded," Mr. Bout told Russia's ITAR-Tass.

His wife, Alla Bout, said, "Now it is absolutely clear to everyone that the case is absolutely political," ITAR-Tass reported.

The case has plunged Thailand into a diplomatic dilemma, with Washington demanding Mr. Bout's extradition to face terrorism charges and Moscow demanding his release, saying Mr. Bout is an innocent businessman.

Experts say Mr. Bout has knowledge of Russia's military and intelligence operations and Moscow does not want him to go on trial in the United States.

The appeals court that ordered Mr. Bout's extradition on Aug. 20 reversed a lower court's decision from a year earlier. Rescinding the second set of charges that had been filed by the U.S. initially appeared to be a technicality.

Washington submitted its request in late August to the Thai Foreign Ministry to drop the charges.

However, under Thai law, a defendant has the right to object to charges against him being dropped — a stance Mr. Bout's lawyer openly said he would take as a way to stall the extradition.

The court said in its Monday ruling that "the legal procedure will resume" because Mr. Bout objected to the charges being dropped.

Long legal delays could scuttle the extradition. When the appeals court cleared the way for Mr. Bout's extradition in August, it said the extradition must take place within three months, or roughly by Nov. 20.

Mr. Bout arrived at court Monday with a dozen armed commandos, apparently reflecting new concerns for his safety.

He wore a flak jacket to court for the first time in addition to his standard ankle shackles.

The Russian also was driven to court in his own security van rather than riding with other prisoners.

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