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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Viktor Bout testifies in Thiland

It looks like Viktor has lost some weight in his Thi Prison....


By MICHAEL CASEY – 23 hours ago

BANGKOK, Thailand — The purported "Merchant of Death" told a Thai court Monday he was not involved in a scheme to sell weapons to Colombian rebels, as he sought to prevent his extradition to the U.S.

Viktor Bout, a former Soviet air force officer, has long been linked to some of Africa's most notorious conflicts, allegedly supplying arms to former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

He has repeatedly denied any involvement in illicit activities and has never been prosecuted, despite being the subject of U.N. sanctions and a travel ban.

The 41-year-old Russian — who was purportedly the model for the arms dealer portrayed by Nicolas Cage in the 2005 movie, "Lord of War" — was arrested in March during a sting operation in which undercover U.S. agents posed as rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish acronym, FARC.

But on Monday, dressed in an orange prison uniform with shackles around his ankles, he told the court he was set up by the Americans.

  • "I never met anyone from FARC. I've never talked to anyone from FARC," Bout told the court. "I didn't do anything wrong in Thailand."
  • The U.S. is seeking Bout's extradition on charges he conspired to sell millions of dollars worth of weapons, including 100 surface-to-air missiles and armor-piercing rockets, that he thought were destined for the FARC.
  • The leftist group, which has been fighting Colombia's government for more than four decades, is listed by the U.S. as a terror group.

U.N. reports have said Bout parlayed his contacts in the post-Soviet arms industry into a weapons-dealing business, setting up a network of more than 50 aircraft around the world to supply arms that fueled a litany of conflicts, mostly in Africa. The U.N. suspects his clients included Taylor, Gadhafi, the late dictator Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, now known as Congo, and both sides of the civil war in Angola.

The world body imposed a travel ban on him that accused him of supporting efforts by Taylor's regime in Liberia to destabilize neighboring Sierra Leone.

Bout scoffed at the U.N. allegations on Monday, telling the court that his aviation business only shipped "legal items."

  • "The U.N. is not a court," he said, his voice rising as he waved his hands in the air.
  • "It is a group of countries and it doesn't have the capacity to check what I send on my planes."
  • The extradition hearing has drawn an unusually vigorous response from Russia, according to Douglas Farah, who wrote the 2007 book on Bout, "Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible." The co-author of the book, Stephen Braun, is an editor at the Washington bureau of The Associated Press.

Farah said the Russian government has run sympathetic stories in government media about Bout and lobbied senior Thai officials for his release.

  • Two officials from Russia's Embassy in Thailand were in court on Monday.
  • The Duma, or lower house of parliament, has also issued a statement calling for him to be returned to Russia.

"The Russians have made great efforts to get him out beyond what they would do for a normal Russian citizen," Farah said. "Over the years, he's been incredibly useful to the Russian intelligence apparatus particularly in delivering weapons to states such as Iran and their proxies in Lebanon."

Farah said the Russian government is concerned that he could reveal details about his dealings with Moscow were he to be put on trial in the United States.

"I think they would prefer to have him back in Moscow under their control than having him testify in open court in the United States," Farah said.

Facing the judges in a wooden chair on Monday, Bout often appeared agitated as he detailed his arrest and nine-month detention in a Bangkok prison. But at one point, he turned and flashed a victory sign and smiled at his mother, who along his wife attended the hearing.

Bout testified that he came to Bangkok "to relax" and meet with several Thai executives "who wanted to purchase airplanes."

"I did not commit any terrorist acts," Bout said.
Bout and his attorneys offered up a laundry list of reasons he should be set free:

  • The arrest warrant was flawed.
  • He committed no crime in Thailand.
  • The United States had no business prosecuting him.
  • He is a victim of worsening relations between the United States and Russia.

Bout faces charges in the United States of conspiring to kill Americans, conspiring to kill U.S. officers or employees, conspiring to provide material support to terrorists and conspiring to acquire and use an anti-aircraft missile.

He could face a maximum penalty of life in prison if convicted.

The extradition hearing will continue Tuesday and is expected to finish this week. A ruling is not immediately expected.

The Rest @ The Associated Press

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