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Alleged Russian arms dealer pleads not guilty

Bout's extradition will not hurt US-Russia ties: State Dept
Washington (AFP) Nov 16, 2010 - The US State Department said Tuesday that Thailand's extradition of suspected Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout to the United States would not damage ties between Moscow and Washington. "We understand that on a number of issues... we agree to disagree sometimes. We have tensions that crop up periodically. And we work to manage those," State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters. "I don't expect that this will have any impact on our relationship with Russia," Crowley added. Bout, dubbed the "Merchant of Death," was flown out of Thailand Tuesday to face trial in the United States following a long legal battle.

His sudden departure came shortly after the Thai cabinet approved his handover in a move that prompted fresh fury from Moscow, which had vowed to do all it could to bring Bout home. Russia said his extradition was "illegal" and prompted by unprecedented US pressure. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow would support Bout "by all means" and denounced what he described as an "extreme injustice", adding to speculation that Bout may have knowledge of sensitive information. The 43-year-old former Soviet air force pilot has been fighting extradition on terrorism charges since his March 2008 arrest after a sting operation in Bangkok involving undercover US agents posing as Colombian FARC rebels. He was flown out on a US government plane accompanied by officials from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), said Colonel Supisarn Bhakdinarunart, commander of Thailand's Crime Suppression Division.
by Staff Writers
New York (AFP) Nov 17, 2010
Russia's so-called "Merchant of Death," accused of running a global arms empire, pleaded not guilty to terrorism charges here Wednesday, after being extradited from Thailand against Moscow's wishes.

"He will plead not guilty," a lawyer for Viktor Bout, 43, said in a New York federal court.

Judge Shira Scheindlin then ordered Bout to remain in detention until a hearing set for January 10. Bout faces a maximum penalty of life in prison and minimum of 25 years if found guilty.

US prosecutors allege he ran one of the world's most extensive arms trafficking networks and was trapped in a 2008 sting operation in which he believed he was selling a large arsenal to Colombia's FARC narco-guerrillas, designated a terrorist organization by Washington.

Despite his allegedly lucrative weapons empire, Bout insisted to the judge that he needed a court-appointed lawyer.

Bout is charged with attempting to sell Colombia's FARC rebels an arsenal of surface-to-air missiles and infantry weapons between November 2007 and March 2008.

The FARC representative he allegedly thought he was meeting in Bangkok was in fact a US undercover agent from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

According to Preet Bharara, US attorney for Manhattan, Bout allegedly planned to sell FARC more than 700 surface-to-air missiles, 5,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles, landmines, millions of rounds of ammunition, and ultra-light airplanes that could be fitted with weaponry.

"It was an arsenal that would be the envy of some small countries," Bharara told a news conference.

Bout arrived in New York late Tuesday after a dramatic exit from Thailand, which only agreed to his extradition after two years of legal battles and intense pressure from Moscow and Washington.

US Attorney General Eric Holder called Bout's capture "a victory for the rule of law worldwide," and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos told reporters in Bogota that Bout "should pay."

But Russia said the burly, mustachioed Bout had been subjected to an "illegal extradition." Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow would support Bout "by all means" from "extreme injustice."

The row, which follows another storm over the US authorities' unmasking of a Russian spy ring earlier this year, threatened a new disruption to President Barack Obama's policy of building closer ties with Moscow.

Analysts said the harsh reaction indicated alarm in Moscow that Bout might give away secrets about the extensive and often murky weapons dealing businesses run from the ex-Soviet Union.

A former Soviet air force officer said to speak six languages and operate under even more aliases, Bout insists he is an legitimate businessman.

However, Washington alleges that the arms he has sold or brokered fueled conflicts and supported warring regimes in Afghanistan, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Sudan.

His clients have allegedly included the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, while his payments allegedly ran from hard cash to blood diamonds.

His alleged exploits earned him the nickname "Merchant of Death" and "Lord of War," after a movie starring Nicholas Cage who is said to have modeled his character on Bout.

"For more than a decade, Mr Bout is alleged to have plied a deadly trade in surface-to-air missiles, land mines, bullets, death and destruction," said Michele Leonhart, acting administrator of the DEA.

"Fortunately, with his arrest, extradition, and pending prosecution in the Southern District of New York, his last alleged attempt to deal in death means that he will finally face justice."

Bout denies all those claims and his wife, Alla, told AFP that he was the real victim.

"Viktor doesn't have any secrets that can be useful to the United States. I think the US will play him as a card in their political game with the Russian government," she said.

The Russian embassy in Bangkok said it had been taken by surprise by the lightening-fast extradition.

Escorted by dozens of armed Thai police commandos and with snipers deployed along the route, Bout was whisked from a maximum security Bangkok prison to a waiting US government plane.

"The operation had to be carried out quickly because of the possibility of an ambush and assassination on the way," Colonel Supisarn Bhakdinarunart, commander of Thailand's Crime Suppression Division, told AFP.

"The embassy got no official information from the Thais. It seems a little strange for us. It was done in such a hurry," said Andrey Dvornikov, head of the consular section.

"They have given nothing, no warning for the embassy, for the wife, for the lawyer -- nothing," he told AFP.

earlier related report
Wife says Viktor Bout 'card in political game'
Bangkok (AFP) Nov 17, 2010 - The wife of suspected Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout has lashed out at Thailand over his sudden extradition, saying her husband is a pawn in a political game between the United States and Russia.

In an interview with AFP, Alla Bout said there were no grounds for the move while legal wrangling was still ongoing in Thailand.

"The decision of the Thai government is totally against legal procedures and the law," she said.

Escorted by dozens of armed police commandos and with snipers deployed along the route, Bout was whisked from a maximum security Bangkok prison to a waiting US government plane on Tuesday before his wife had a chance to say goodbye.

The extradition of the so-called "Merchant of Death" on terrorism charges prompted fresh fury from Russia, adding to speculation he may have knowledge of potentially damaging information -- something his wife denied.

"Viktor doesn't have any secrets that can be useful to the United States. I think the US will play him as a card in their political game with the Russian government," she said.

Alla Bout said she had only heard about her husband's extradition from Thai media, and neither the Russian embassy nor Bout's lawyer was informed.

"I know that Viktor's passport is still at the Russian embassy," she said.

"It appears that the United States government was informed in advance because it managed to send an airplane and officials to escort him to the United States," she said.

"So it has to be a decision which was taken under threat -- either a political threat or for money," she said.

"The fact that they didn't even allow me to say goodbye to my husband speaks for itself -- the extradition was definitely done in secret."

The 43-year-old former Soviet air force pilot has been fighting extradition on terrorism charges since his March 2008 arrest after a sting operation in Bangkok involving undercover US agents posing as Colombian FARC rebels.

The inspiration for the Hollywood film "Lord of War", Bout has been accused of using a fleet of cargo planes to deliver arms in Africa, South America and the Middle East.

Bout has repeatedly denied suggestions that he was a former KGB agent and maintains that he ran a legitimate air cargo business.

His lawyers tried to stall the extradition with a series of legal challenges and his wife questioned whether he would be given a fair trial.

"I think the government of the United States will do its utmost to prove Viktor's guilt. They will try hard to do that despite the fact that for 10 years, no one managed to do so," she said.

"They will justify it by forging evidence and we know in the United States he will probably face a jury ... It is very hard to believe the jury will be capable of making the fair decision in this case."

Bout, who speaks six languages and has used at least seven separate identities, faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted in the United States on charges including conspiracy to kill US nationals and providing material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organisation.

Alla Bout moved to Thailand after her husband's arrest and rented a small apartment near the prison where he was held, visiting him every day with his lunch. On Tuesday she arrived just minutes after he was taken away.

She now plans to return to Russia to prepare for her next move.

"I have to go back to my motherland, to get some strength and find lawyers to continue to fight for my husband," she said.



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MILPLEX
Wife says Viktor Bout 'card in political game'
Bangkok (AFP) Nov 17, 2010
The wife of suspected Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout has lashed out at Thailand over his sudden extradition, saying her husband is a pawn in a political game between the United States and Russia. In an interview with AFP, Alla Bout said there were no grounds for the move while legal wrangling was still ongoing in Thailand. "The decision of the Thai government is totally against lega ... read more







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