Security officers escort suspected Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, center,… (STR, AFP/Getty Images )
Reporting from Washington and Seoul — The extradition of alleged Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout from Thailand to the United States on Tuesday drew sharp protests from Russian officials, who insist the so-called merchant of death is an innocent businessman.
Bout, a former Soviet air force officer who reportedly maintains strong ties to Russian intelligence, had been put aboard a chartered plane under tight security in Bangkok and arrived in suburban New York in manacles late Tuesday. He faces four federal terrorism charges, U.S. officials said.
Bout is scheduled to appear before a federal judge in the Southern District of New York on Wednesday. According to an indictment unsealed in May 2008, three of the counts carry a maximum life sentence and the fourth a prison term of up to 15 years.
Bout, 43, reputed to be one of the world's most prolific arms dealers, was arrested in March 2008 in Bangkok as part of a U.S.-Thai sting operation in which agents posed as arms buyers for the rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
While held in a maximum-security prison in Thailand, Bout fought extradition to the United States. His detention in Thailand was to expire within days.
The case has stirred diplomatic tensions between Washington and Moscow, which has alleged that Bout's extradition was politically motivated and that he has no chance of a fair trial in the U.S.
In Moscow, the Foreign Ministry called the extradition "inexplicable and unjustifiable."
"It leaves no doubt that the anti-legal extradition of V.A. Bout stems from the unprecedented political pressure applied by the United States on the government and judicial authorities of Thailand," it said in a statement. "All this can be characterized as none other but interference in the execution of justice and puts in doubt the independence of Thailand's justice system."
Some analysts believe Russian officials fear Bout could spill secrets to the United States about Russian intelligence-gathering.
Philip Crowley, the chief State Department spokesman, acknowledged that the extradition would put stress on U.S. relations with Russia, though he described the effects as no more than "ripples."
U.S. prosecutors maintain that, since the 1990s, Bout has supplied weapons that have been used in civil wars in South America, the Middle East and Africa. His clients allegedly included Liberia's Charles Taylor, Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi and rebels in Angola's civil war.
Bout augmented his arms brokerage with conflict diamonds, frozen fish, cut flowers, shipping these items back to Europe in aircraft cargo holds after weapons had been delivered to a particular conflict zone, analysts say.
According to some accounts, Bout may have armed the Taliban and its Northern Alliance enemies in Afghanistan before the Sept. 11 attacks. According to others, he also used a front company to supply the U.S. military in Iraq.
Bout's alleged activities inspired a film titled "Lord of War," starring Nicolas Cage.
On Tuesday, dozens of police officers and masked commandos guarded the entrance to Bangkok's maximum-security Bangkwang prison, apparently waiting to remove Bout for the flight to the U.S., according to a wire service photographer.
Bout was photographed in Bangkok boarding a plane in a helmet and body armor — suggesting U.S. authorities feared someone might try to kill him as he departed.
A Bangkok criminal court in October dismissed money-laundering and wire fraud charges against Bout that probably would have delayed extradition further.
Thailand has been a key U.S. ally and enjoys strong exports to the United States, but U.S. officials say they exerted no pressure on Thailand to give up Bout.
In a telephone interview from Bangkok, Bout's wife said she had arrived at the prison Tuesday for her daily meeting with her husband but was met at the gate by the warden, who told her Bout was on his way to the U.S. She said she was carrying the lunch she had made for him because Bout would eat only food that she had cooked.
"Why wasn't I informed in advance?" Alla Bout, 47, said she asked the warden.
She said the warden smiled and said: "I don't know. Everyone knew, but you didn't?"
Alla Bout said she later was told by a Thai journalist that her husband had left the prison at noon with at least six U.S. law enforcement officers and was in the air by 1:30 p.m.
"It is nothing but a kidnapping," she said. "Viktor was packed and sent away like a thing, like a piece of luggage without documents, while the appellate court was still considering his case."
Richter reported from Washington and Glionna from Seoul. Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.