Victor Bout arrives at a courthouse in Bangkok this week. The United States… (Sukree Sukplang / Reuters )
Reporting from Bangkok, Thailand, and New Delhi — The last chance for an alleged arms smuggler dubbed the "Merchant of Death" to avoid extradition from Thailand to the United States on terrorism charges appears to lie with Thailand's prime minister, who faces a tough decision: offend the United States or offend Russia.
The difficult diplomatic choice for Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva follows a ruling Tuesday by a Thai court clearing a legal obstacle that had barred the extradition. Victor Bout, a former Russian air force officer, is suspected of supplying weapons to various armies and terrorist groups in the Middle East, South America and Africa.
Moscow says Bout is a "normal businessman" and wants him returned, but Washington sees him as a dangerous arms proliferator.
Anthony Davis, an analyst with Jane's Defense Weekly, said the Thai government is going to have to make someone angry. "My guess is it will be the Russians."
Bout has worked feverishly to avoid the U.S. justice system since his March 2008 arrest in Bangkok under a U.S.-led sting operation. In a scene reminiscent of a John le Carre novel, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents posed as members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia to bring about his detention, in cooperation with Thai authorities.
But on Tuesday, the Bangkok Criminal Court dismissed money laundering and wire fraud charges against Bout that probably would have delayed extradition proceedings further.
The decision followed an Aug. 20 ruling by Thailand's appeals court that Bout could be extradited to the U.S. on four terrorism-related charges , and that the transfer must take place within 90 days.
Russia has alleged that the case has been politicized, and Bout claims that he has no chance of a fair trial in the U.S.
"Victor Bout's extradition to the United States cannot be justified on any legal grounds," said Vitaly Anapov, a Russian Embassy spokesman in Bangkok. For two years Thailand has been detaining a Russian citizen unjustly, he said.
Speaking in Brussels on the sidelines of the Asia-Europe summit after Tuesday's decision, Abhisit said his administration faces a difficult choice. Later, he said his government would hold an emergency meeting Friday after his return.
Thailand has been a key U.S. ally and enjoys strong exports to the United States. But the government must be careful not to appear too compliant in the face of U.S. pressure, analysts said. They said Thailand has also been hampered by limited resources.
"It's very difficult for the Thai legal system to investigate allegations in Central Asia or elsewhere," said Kraisak Choonhavan, a parliament member. "The attorney general doesn't have the budget to go around the world."
Bout certainly did, however, said Moises Naim, author of "Illicit: How Smugglers, Traffickers and Copycats Are Hijacking the Global Economy."
Bout "augmented his arms brokerage with conflict diamonds, frozen fish, cut flowers," shipping these items back to Europe in aircraft cargo holds after weapons were delivered to a particular conflict zone, Naim said.
According to some accounts, Bout may have armed the Taliban and its Northern Alliance enemies in Afghanistan before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. According to others, he supplied the U.S. military in Iraq via a front company.
Bout's website characterizes him as a businessman and "a dynamic, charismatic, spontaneous, well-dressed, well-spoken and highly energetic person who can easily communicate in several languages. He is a born salesman with undying love for aviation and eternal drive to succeed."
Although Thailand and the U.S. are long-standing allies, Russia is well regarded among many Thais in part because of its positive treatment in school curricula, said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political science professor at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.
Further complicating the case are Bout's alleged links to Thailand's fractious domestic politics. "Thais started to pay attention when the case got into the national coverage," said Pitch Pongsawat, a political analyst.
In August, Bout's wife, Alla, said at a news conference in Bangkok that a political ally of Abhisit had pressured Bout to implicate Abhisit's nemesis, former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, in arms trafficking.
Thai authorities accuse Thaksin of fueling violent clashes between pro-Thaksin protesters and security forces that left 90 people dead in Bangkok from March to May. Early Wednesday, three people reportedly died in an explosion in a Bangkok suburb; authorities blamed the protest movement.
Just how long Abhisit can hold off making a decision remains to be seen.
"We look forward to the extradition of Victor Bout," said Kristin Kneedler, spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, but said the embassy could not comment on timing.
Special correspondent Roughneen reported from Bangkok, and Magnier from New Delhi.