Monday, December 22, 2008

In the dock: 'Merchant of Death' denies Farc arms plot

Published Date: 23 December 2008
THE man who stands accused of being one of the world's most notorious arms smugglers yesterday denied plotting to send weapons to Colombian rebels.
For the first time since his arrest in a "sting" in March, Viktor Bout – dubbed the "Merchant of Death" for masterminding alleged arms deals – took the stand in a Thai court to fight extradition to the United States.

The 41-year-old Russian, who has long denied any involvement in illegal activities, is purportedly the inspiration for the arms dealer portrayed by Nicolas Cage in the 2005 film Lord of War.

He was caught nine months ago at a Bangkok hotel after US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agents posed as rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc).

He was subsequently indicted in the US on four terrorism- related charges.

Bout, in prison uniform and shackled at the ankles, appeared composed while testifying at Bangkok's Criminal Court. At one point, he flashed the victory sign to an acquaintance in the court. Speaking in Russian, which was translated into Thai, Bout said: "I never met or talked to anyone from Farc. I didn't do anything wrong in Thailand. I have never been to Colombia or the United States."

Describing himself as a businessman involved in aviation and construction, he said he travelled to Bangkok "to relax" and to meet "a Thai businessman who wanted to buy aircraft".

Bout claimed he was a pawn in an American conspiracy. Raising his voice, he said: "The US is trying to use this to cover up its internal problems and prevent good relations between Thailand and Russia."

United Nations agencies and several western governments have alleged that Bout has delivered arms to dictators and warlords in Africa and Afghanistan, allegedly in breach of several UN arms embargoes.

It was Peter Hain, then the Cabinet minister for African affairs, who gave Bout his nickname in November 2000, when he called him "the chief sanctions-buster" flouting UN arms embargoes against warring parties in Angola and Sierra Leone, and described him as a "merchant of death".

The extradition hearing originally started in June, but has been repeatedly delayed due to frequent changes of defence lawyers. During an earlier hearing, an agent of the DEA testified that his officers set up the operation that lured Bout from Russia to his arrest in Bangkok.

The agent Robert Zachariasiewicz told the court that Bout faces US charges of conspiring to kill Americans and US government officers or employees, conspiring to provide material support to terrorists and conspiring to acquire and use an anti-aircraft missile. He could face life in prison.

The hearing is expected to finish tomorrow. However, Preecha Prasertsak, from Bout's defence team, said that he would seek an extension to locate more witnesses.

Business built on the collapse of communism

VIKTOR Bout built his business on the huge depletion of weapons and aircraft in the Eastern bloc as the Cold War ended. 

While he has denied working for any intelligence agency, reports have tied him to the GRU, the Soviet Union's – and now Russia's – military intelligence agency. 

In 2000, a United Nations report said his father-in-law may have been a deputy chairman of the KGB. 

Bout has been investigated by police in several countries, but has never been prosecuted for arms dealing. In 2002, Belgium issued an international arrest warrant through Interpol on charges of money-laundering and criminal conspiracy. 

He has repeatedly been accused of trafficking weapons through front companies to war-torn central and west Africa since the early 1990s. A UN travel ban imposed on him said he supported the regime of the former Liberian president Charles Taylor in efforts to destabilise Sierra Leone and gain illicit access to diamonds, known as "blood diamonds" for the warring they inspired.

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