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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

BANGKOK - Thailand said Wednesday that it will not interfere in the extradition hearing of an alleged Russian arms smuggler whom the United States wants to put on trial but Russia reportedly wants sent home.
A senior Foreign Ministry official was called to testify at the ongoing hearing of Viktor Bout, dubbed the "Merchant of Death," after the presiding judge said he wanted the ministry's input because relations with Washington and Moscow could be at risk.

"The decision should be made with no regard to the relations between countries," Foreign Minister permanent secretary Veerasakdi Futrakul told the court. "The government will not interfere with the court decision and the legal process."

The United States wants Bout , who was arrested in Thailand last year for allegedly conspiring to sell weapons to Colombian rebels, tried in New York, where he faces four terrorism-related charges.

Russia has called the effort to extradite Bout "bewildering," and U.S. lawmakers have accused Moscow of trying to have Bout handed over to them, raising the possibility he could avoid trial in the United States.

The court had originally said that Wednesday would be the final day for testimony in the extradition hearing, which started over a year ago. But the judge adjourned the proceedings until May 19 so another ministry official with legal expertise could answer questions regarding Thailand's international treaties and whether a Colombian rebel group implicated in the case is considered a terrorist organization by Thailand.

Bout, 42, was arrested in Bangkok in March 2008 in the culmination of an elaborate sting operation in which U.S. agents posed as arms buyers for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC _ classified as a terrorist organization by Washington.

Bout is reputed to be one of the world's most prolific arms dealers. He has long been linked to some of the world's most notorious conflicts, allegedly supplying arms to former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. He has repeatedly denied the charges.

At a hearing in March, Judge Jitakorn Patanasiri said he was in "a tough position _ bilateral ties with Russia and the United States could be at stake."

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