REPORTING FROM. BANGKOK, THAILAND — An arms dealer arrested by U.S. agents in a 2008 sting operation at a Bangkok hotel could go free this week after a Thai judge's unexpected decision Tuesday to reject an American request for extradition.
Bangkok Criminal Court Judge Chittakorn Pattanasiri ruled that Viktor Bout's alleged crimes, which U.S. officials say involved a Colombian terrorist organization, actually would be classified as political offenses. Extradition is not allowed for political offenses.
According to an indictment, Bout was attempting to sell more than 700 surface-to-air missiles, a massive cache of automatic weapons, and airplanes and helicopters to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which the U.S. considers a terrorist group.
The judge also found that the extradition treaty didn't apply because Bout's alleged conspiracy did not involve Thai citizens or interests.
If the Thai prosecutors representing the U.S. don't appeal within 72 hours, Bout will be set free. According to media reports, a U.S. Embassy official said he was "mystified" by the judge's ruling.
Officials say Bout, 42, who has denied any wrongdoing, sold weapons to some of the world's most feared warlords and dictators. He has never been tried despite being the subject of United Nations sanctions, a Belgian money-laundering indictment and accusations of supplying weapons used in civil wars in South America, the Mideast and Africa, the Associated Press reported.
"Round 1 has gone to Bout, but the battle for justice for this international menace is not over," Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fullerton) said in a statement. "It is unacceptable that this man goes free. . . . Something is rotten in Bangkok."