Argument

Why the “Merchant of Death” Might Not Stand Trial

Why the “Merchant of Death” Might Not Stand Trial

Today, a Thai court ruled against extraditing notorious Russian weapons trafficker Viktor Bout to the United States — a setback for the American legal system and a bad portent not just for U.S.-Thai relations, but also for relations between the United States and Russia.

James F. Entwistle, a senior U.S. official in Thailand, said he was "disappointed and mystified" at the ruling, which the United States intends to appeal. But the odds are in Bout’s favor, as Thai appellate courts affirm lower-court rulings in the vast majority of cases.

Who is Viktor Bout and why does this case matter so much? The Russian dealer became known as the "Merchant of Death" for his exploits in delivering sophisticated weapons to war zones from Afghanistan to Colombia and Lebanon — but mostly to Africa’s most brutal thugs. Before he was finally nabbed last spring, Bout had been at work for decades, despite episodic Western efforts to stop him. He was the target of intelligence operations at the end of the Clinton administration. Several European governments, especially Belgium, have been after him for years. And, the United Nations has placed him on an international travel ban.

His extradition has become a top priority for an Obama administration seeking to prevent him from being released and further fanning conflicts around the world, particularly in his old stomping grounds of Afghanistan. The U.S. Justice Department had hoped Bout would stand trial after the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) caught him in a sting in March 2008.

Bout’s capture was like a John Le Carré novel. In an elaborate ruse, DEA agents posed as guerillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and contacted the Russian arms dealer. The Colombian group, infamous for its kidnappings and cocaine trafficking, is designated a terrorist organization by the United States and European Union. Bout, a former Soviet officer, stated he could sell the "FARC" intermediaries sophisticated weaponry to fight the U.S.-backed government in Colombia and to target U.S. military and civilian advisors. After having his intermediaries hop-scotch around the world to meet with them, Bout agreed to fly to Bangkok to seal the deal in person.

There, according to the indictment in Southern District of New York, he met with the undercover agents posing as FARC commanders for two hours in a luxury hotel. He offered to sell the group 700 to 800 surface-to-air missiles, millions of rounds of ammunition, AK-47 assault rifles, two cargo planes, and drone aircraft to bomb U.S.-built radar facilities in Colombia. He specifically stated he wanted to help kill Americans, who, he said, were his enemy too. He offered weapons-training classes. It is all on tape.

For a guy who also supplied weapons to Charles Taylor of Liberia and the Taliban in Afghanistan, this was Bout at his worst. In better moments, he once flew humanitarian missions for the United Nations and French peacekeepers. At the start of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, he flew hundreds of missions for the U.S. military and civilian contractors, raking in millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars at a time when his operation was officially blacklisted by the U.S. Treasury Department.

The United States never intended for Thai courts to try Bout. U.S. officials wanted him sent back to America to stand trial. In a shock, the Thai court today said no. The court’s ruling was a little convoluted and off-point, perhaps on purpose given the stakes of the game. The court determined that Bout’s guilt could not be decided in Thailand, clearly not exonerating him of the charges. But the judge also ruled the U.S. extradition request could not proceed because the FARC is not a designated terrorist group in Thailand.

"This is a political case," the judge at Bangkok’s Criminal Court ruled. "The FARC is fighting for a political cause and is not a criminal gang. Thailand does not recognize the FARC as a terrorist group."

The judge also expressed skepticism that Bout could deliver what he promised in the meeting, asking where the accused would find such high-tech weaponry. The answer is: Anywhere and everywhere. Bout has sold Russian attack helicopters, anti-tank systems, and millions of assault rifles to the highest bidder. He possesses airlift capacity and access to the surplus arsenals of the former Soviet republics. Bout pioneered the full-service weapons procurement game.

Most of the defendant’s legal arguments centered on the fact that no evidence linked him to the FARC. But the sole legal issue at hand was whether the extradition request was valid. The Thai foreign ministry testified in court that it was.

With strong Russian pressure mounting to keep Bout from being extradited — the nation’s Duma, or lower house of parliament, passed a resolution condemning the extradition request. The judge felt trapped. In March, he said in open court, amazingly, that he was in a "tough position" because "bilateral ties with Russia and the United States could be at stake." Apparently he decided he feared the Russians more than the Americans.

But that may be a mistake. A large, bipartisan group of senior congressional leaders have shown a strong interest in Bout’s case, and some are already pushing for a retaliatory U.S. response.

Rep. Ed Royce, a California Republican who has led the congressional effort to hold Bout accountable for his actions, stated: "If this ruling holds, this [U.S.-Thai] relationship will be set back dramatically."

"While the Thai Foreign Ministry has stated that the extradition request meets the conditions of the Thai-American extradition treaty, the Russian government has been pushing hard for Bout’s release," Royce continued. "Politics seems to have trumped the law. Something is rotten in Bangkok."

Something is rotten indeed.