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Analysis & Opinion
25.08.10 Twisted Pistol
By Roland Oliphant

The decision by a Thai court to allow the extradition to the United States of suspected arms dealer Victor Bout has raised a storm of protest in Moscow, which has called the decision “unjust” and “political.” That in turn has raised speculation in the Western press that the former Red army translator and air freight tycoon knows things the Russians don’t want made public. But whatever Victor Bout has done, and whoever he was doing it for, he was far from alone.

Bout was arrested in a sting operation in Bangkok in March 2008 after agreeing to sell weapons to two men working for the U.S. Justice Department’s Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), who were posing as representatives of the Columbian guerilla movement FARC. In a 2008 interview with the BBC Tom Pasquerallo, the chief of the DEA’s Southeast Asia division and the man who made the final arrest, described Bout’s offers to the BBC as “Weapons ‘R’ Us.” According to the U.S. indictment, Bout told undercover agents in Bangkok he could supply them with 700 to 800 surface-to-air missiles, 5,000 AK-47 assault rifles, millions of rounds of ammunition, C-4 explosives, landmines and unmanned aerial drones, Reuters reported.

The arrest was the culmination of a decade-long campaign to catch the man who was the subject of a 2007 book titled “Merchant of Death” by American authors Stephen Braun and Douglas Farah, and the “Lord of War” in the Nicholas Cage film it inspired. It follows an investigation sparked after his name cropped up in United Nations reports on arms embargo violations in African conflict zones – particularly a 2001 report on arms supplies to Liberia, which identified him as “the owner of many of the arms trafficking planes involved,” – that concluded he was far more than simply the delivery man.

At least, that’s the American case. But Bout’s lawyers say that he has only ever been an honest delivery man, running a perfectly legitimate air freight business. His personal Web site claims that the “DEA agents” were actually “paid informants,” that the allegations were not proved in a Thai court, and that the “arrest” was more of a kidnap attempt in which the American agents acted without the knowledge or authorization of the Thai authorities (according to their account, the Thai police only became involved when the hotel management called them to the scene, and the U.S. arrest warrant was issued four days after the event).

So, who is Victor Bout? “He’s an interesting person,” said Brian Johnson-Thomas, a journalist who has met him. “I’ve never thought he’s immoral. I think you could reasonably say he’s amoral. But I don’t think you should try to paint a picture of Victor as innocent – he clearly isn’t. But you have to put that in context. Ninety-five percent of his flights were ordinary, commercial ones.”

In August 2009 a Thai criminal court seemed to side with his defense, ruling against the extradition on the grounds that since Thailand does not recognize FARC as terrorists, he had not committed any crime. But the higher court overturned that decision last Friday – days after the Thai ambassador in Washington was summoned to the State Department to be told that the case was of the “highest priority to the United States,” the New York Times reported. Bout is now expected to be extradited to the United States within three months, where he will face trial in Manhattan (rumors that an American aircraft is already waiting for him at a Thai air base have so far been unsubstantiated).

Interestingly, the Americans had originally filed two indictments – one concerning the FARC sting, and other involving money laundering. The second has now been dropped – a move that Johnson-Thomas suspects is intended to keep the case strictly to the FARC sting and prevent Bout’s lawyers from bringing up the work he has done for the United States – a tactic the lawyers for Monzer al-Khasser, a Syrian arms dealer jailed in the United States in 2008 after being caught in a similar sting by agents posing as FARC representatives, attempted to use.

In its turn, the Russian Foreign Ministry summoned the Thai ambassador in Moscow to express its “extreme disappointment and bewilderment” with the “politically motivated decision,” after Friday’s decision. “We deplore what is in my opinion an unjust, political decision made by the Court of Appeal in Thailand,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Interfax from Armenia. “The decision, based on the information we have, was made under very strong pressure. That’s sad.”

Political? Definitely

All that could be true, but that hasn’t stopped inevitable speculation that the Russians want Bout, who like Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin once served as a military interpreter in Portuguese-speaking Africa, to come home because he knows things they would rather hide. Specifically, as the Echo of Moscow radio host Yulia Latynina helpfully linked up the dots in Wednesday’s issue of The Moscow Times, that “the delivery of 100 Russian anti-aircraft missiles [to FARC] appears to be a government appointed program.”

Who is right? Probably everyone, in so far as the case is almost certainly mired in political interests of one kind or another. “To imagine the politics of this is irrelevant…well, it’s pretty unlikely, isn’t it?” said Roy Isbister, an expert on small arms and transfer controls at Safer World, a London-based NGO that campaigns against the arms trade.
If the legend of Victor Bout is to be believed, the Russians would not be the first to be embarrassed by association with him. His aviation firm AirCess specialized in the niche market of flying old Soviet cargo planes into obscure trouble spots, and as such is known to have been hired by almost everyone and anyone involved. Besides supplying weapons to war lords he is said to have flown humanitarian aid for the UN, operated out of Royal Air Force bases in Britain, and even to have been contracted by the United States to fly supplies into Iraq.

Isbister agreed with the idea that the weight of evidence against Bout’s claim that he was no more than an honest “taxi” driver is overwhelming. But working out who he was working for is much more difficult. “I haven’t seen any evidence to the effect that the Russians have been using him for the ‘plausible deniability’ defense,” said Isbister. “But it’s certainly possible in the world of arms trading, and it wouldn’t only be Russia that would be capable of that kind of behavior.”

The 2001 UN report, for instance, describes the route of a shipment of AK-47s that passed through Slovakia, Uganda, Moldova and the United Arab Emirates before finally ending up in Liberia. Unscrupulous traders can also make use of false documentation and intermediary countries – and in this sense Bout, if he is guilty, is far from unique.

To illustrate the kind of trade Bout represents, Isbister pointed to a 2006 Italian investigation into drug trafficking that stumbled on a massive deal involving Italian intermediaries helping Libya to procure a vast number of assault rifles (different sources cite anything from 500,000 to three million) from China – even though Libya is estimated to have no more than 120,000 troops under arms. “The deal was legal at the Chinese and Libyan end (though not in Italy, which is why the brokers were arrested), but the idea that all of those arms were going to stay in Libya is hard to credit,” said Isbister. “Arms brokers such as Victor Bout are masters at exploiting the legal loopholes to arrange transfers that, although likely to have catastrophic consequences, are not against the law per se.”

A similar case involved newly produced Romanian weapons that showed up in eastern Congo. “Yes, Victor was the guy who flew them there – but the Romanians supplied them, knowing they were going to a war zone, on the back of an end-use certificate from the Ugandan Ministry of Defense that said these weapons would not be resold or re-exported,” said Johnson-Thomas. “My point is, Victor is not the only person culpable.” Isbister agreed. “Guys like Bout are important to the illicit arms trade. But they’re not the demand, and they’re not the supply.”
The source
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