Embassy cables show US diplomats believe Moscow tried to block extradition of ‘merchant of death’ from Thailand
Russia tried to block the extradition of the suspected international arms trafficker Viktor Bout from Thailand to America by bribing key witnesses, the US claims.
Diplomats in Bangkok alleged in cables released by WikiLeaks that Bout’s “Russian supporters” had paid witnesses to give false testimony during his extradition hearing.
Dubbed the “merchant of death”, Bout was seized by the Thai authorities in March 2008 but only extradited to the US on 16 November this year. The US accuses him of conspiring to sell millions of dollars of weapons to Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) rebels to kill Americans. The Kremlin strongly opposed his extradition.
The Russian businessman, accused of running arms-trafficking networks around the world, maintains he is innocent in a case that turned into an undignified tug-of-war between Washington and Moscow.
In a cable written on 13 February 2009, US diplomats said that in the year after Bout’s arrest, extradition proceedings in Thailand were “going in the way we want” – albeit at a “painfully slow” pace.
More recently, however, the case had taken a worryingly wrong turn: “There have been disturbing indications that Bout’s … and Russian supporters have been using money and influence in an attempt to block extradition,” the diplomats reported.
Bout’s claim was that he had flown to Thailand on official government business. American agents posing as Farc rebels arrested him in a sting operation in a Bangkok hotel after he allegedly agreed to sell them millions of dollars of weapons.
On 12 February 2009, the US ambassador in Bangkok, Eric John, raised his concerns about the case in a meeting with Thailand’s prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva. He warned that the extraditions proceedings had become “tainted as a result of the efforts by Bout’s associates to bribe Thai officials”.
John said the Americans had uncovered several examples of influence and corruption. These included the false testimony by a witness, an attempt to procure the personal secretary of the crown prince of Thailand to testify on Bout’s behalf, and “evidence of bribery schemes gathered throughout the world”.
Abhisit gave a noncommittal response, promising to examine any irregularities. In August 2009, the judge ruled Bout could not be extradited in a stunning setback to the US embassy and its “Bout team”.
The ruling – appealed against by the US – prompted John to write a cable urging US President Barack Obama to telephone Abhisit and initiate “a serious discussion of our concerns over the implications of the Bout verdict”.
“We believe Potus [president of the US] involvement on Bout would have a significant effect here,” he pleaded.
The ambassador suggested a gambit to shame Moscow if Bout was freed to go back to Russia. “We should consider asking the Russians to prosecute Bout if, in the end, he walks here in Thailand. At the very least perhaps we could force the Russians to publicly refuse to do so.”
Other cables reveal that Bout’s fleet of aircraft – allegedly used to deliver arms to Sierra Leone, Liberia and Congo – are currently rusting at an airstrip in the United Arab Emirates. On 7 January 2010, the US consulate reported several of his Soviet cargo planes were stuck at the “sleepy” Ras al-Khaimah (RAK) airport.
“The airport is also working to distance itself from its reputation as a transport facilitator for clients such as international arms trafficker Viktor Bout, who used the RAK airport as a base of operations. The Wing Air aircraft once linked to Viktor Bout are grounded and effectively abandoned,” it said.
Another cable chronicled the unstoppable rise in Russia’s international arms sales – up from $6.7bn (£4.3m) in 2006 to at least $8bn in 2007. It said Moscow exported large quantities of weapons to, among others, Iran, Syria and Venezuela, and was prepared to entertain the “grandiose regional visions” of Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez.
The then US ambassador in Moscow, William Burns, admitted that Russia was unwilling to establish “an expert-level dialogue on arms sales” with Washington and was “deeply cynical” about any US attempts to curb Russian arms exports.
“Russia attaches importance to the volume of the arms export trade, to the diplomatic doors that weapon sales open, to the ill-gotten gains that these sales reap for corrupt senior officials and to the lever it provides the Russian government in stymieing American interests.”
On this topic the US had few instruments of persuasion, Burns added: “Russian officialdom and the public have little, if any, moral compunction about the arms trade, seeing it instead as a welcome symbol of Russia’s resurgent power and strength in the world.”