BANGKOK (Reuters) – Viktor Bout, the Russian alleged “Merchant of Death” of the clandestine arms trade arrested in a U.S. sting operation in Thailand, will stand trial in Bangkok before extradition is considered, police said on Friday.
Bout, arrested at a hotel hours after arriving in Bangkok from Moscow on Thursday, faced a charge of “seeking or gathering assets for terrorism,” sought in an international warrant, Police Lieutenant General Adisorn Nonsee said.
Bout, charged in New York with conspiring to sell weapons worth millions of dollars to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, faces up to 10 years in jail if found guilty in Thailand.
The United States, which has given billions of dollars in military aid to Colombia to fight the Marxist rebels and drug cartels, plans to seek Bout’s extradition, but Adisorn said that would have to wait until after he was tried in Thailand.
“Bout has to be tried in Thailand before extradition,” Adisorn told a news conference where Bout was paraded for the media, guarded by heavily-armed police commandos.
Thai laws require detained foreign terror suspects to be tried in the country and Bout’s Russian lawyer complained his arrest was “unacceptable”.
“I contacted the general prosecutor’s office yesterday and they do not have any documents from the United States,” Viktor Burobin told a Moscow radio station.
“This means a Russian citizen was arrested deceptively outside the home territory and that is not acceptable.”
“We are planning to send a lawyer to Thailand because we know nothing about the charges and haven’t spoken to him since his arrest,” Burobin said.
Alexei Bout insisted his brother “was only involved in cargo transportation and had nothing to do with arms trading”.
A senior official said Thai police would move as quickly as possible on the case as U.S. authorities were already working on Bout’s extradition with Thai prosecutors.
“It has to be quick since we don’t want to keep this time bomb in our home for too long,” Major-General Surapol Thuanthong told reporters.
Asked to comment if Washington would want to extradite Bout before he finished any Thai sentence, Drug Enforcement Administration regional director Thomas Pasquarello told reporters: “The attorneys between the two nations will be working that out.”
Bout and an associate, Andrew Smulian, are charged in New York with agreeing to sell weapons to the FARC including surface-to-air missile systems and armor-piercing rocket launchers between November 2007 and last month.
Smulian, 46, was charged with conspiring to provide material support to a terrorist organization.
If convicted in the United States, both men face up to 15 years in prison.
The DEA told Thai police Smulian might be traveling with Bout to Thailand between March 3 and 13, Lieutenant Colonel Nondhawat Amaranonda, who led the police raid, told Reuters.
But Smulian was not among five foreigners detained with Bout and later freed, Nondhawat said
However, Surapol said the DEA wanted the Thai police to arrest Smulian, but a Thai court declined to issue a warrant, citing a lack of evidence.
Four other Russians and a Briton with Bout when he was arrested were freed because there was no evidence they were involved in any wrongdoing, Surapol said.
Bout, due to appear in court for a formal detention hearing on Saturday, had said nothing to investigators since his arrest, Surapol said, and kept his mouth shut at the news conference.
His only comment was on his arrest, when he told police “the game is over”, Surapol said.
The FARC is fighting a four-decade-old insurgency against the Colombian government and is designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department.