- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 5, 2010

BANGKOK | An alleged Russian arms smuggler dubbed “the Merchant of Death” was led off by masked commandos after a Thai court Tuesday removed a key legal obstacle to his U.S. extradition, which has landed Thailand in the midst of a diplomatic tussle between Washington and Moscow.

Viktor Bout, who allegedly supplied weapons to civil war combatants in South America, the Middle East and Africa, has been fighting extradition since his March 2008 arrest in Bangkok as part of a U.S.-led sting.

The Bangkok Criminal Court on Tuesday dismissed a new trial against Mr. Bout, which had threatened to stall the extradition further. It was the latest phase — and a potential turning point — in a long-running legal battle. Both Washington and Moscow have been demanding custody of Mr. Bout.

The announcement of the ruling stunned the normally stoic Mr. Bout, who was standing to hear the verdict but then sat and hugged his wife, who was seated beside him and began to weep. He then waded through the courtroom to his defense lawyer and with a look of concern said: “[Do] something now. The appeal. We need to appeal.”

Court officials told reporters that the defense was not allowed to appeal. Only prosecutors who filed the charges of money laundering and wire fraud on behalf of the U.S. have the right to appeal within 72 hours, after which time Mr. Bout could be extradited. Prosecutors were not expected to appeal.

One possible twist: Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has said once the court process is finished he will have the final say in Mr. Bout’s extradition.

Asked by reporters how he felt, Mr. Bout replied: “I don’t know. I don’t know what to say.”

Shackled at the ankles, Mr. Bout was escorted in and out of the courtroom by masked commandos. He wore a bulletproof vest for his journey to and from prison. The vest was removed inside the courtroom.

A Thai Appeals Court gave its approval Aug. 20 for Mr. Bout’s extradition to the U.S. to face trial on four terrorism-related charges that could land him in prison for life. That ruling reversed a lower court’s decision.

But the process was stalled because, after the lower court rejected the request, Washington had filed a second set of charges to ensure Mr. Bout wasn’t set free.

Working with Thai prosecutors, the U.S. then tried to drop those charges after the Appeal Court’s ruling, but the Bangkok Criminal Court said Monday the legal proceedings already had started and must be allowed to continue.

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