Thais tried to force arms' dealer Bout to go to USA, lawyer claims

(dpa) - Thai authorities tried to force Viktor Bout, a suspected Russian arms' trafficker, to get on a plane to the United States hours after his arrest in Bangkok earlier this month, Bout's legal counsel claimed on Monday.

Bout, dubbed the "Merchant of Death" by his detractors, was arrested in Bangkok on March 6 in a US-led sting operation that allegedly caught him making a deal with Colombian rebels.

On March 7, Thai police said Bout, 41, would remain in the kingdom to face possible charges of committing illegal activities in the country. If Thai courts turn down the case, Bout faces extradition to the US.

But Bout's Russian lawyer Dasgupta Yan on Monday told a press conference in Bangkok that Thai authorities had tried to force his client to board a plane to the US immediately after his arrest. He said US officials were also present at the time.

"Some government officials at the moment of his detention tried to send him to the United States without proper extradition procedures," said Yan, of the Gridnav & Partners law firm.

"They told my client you need to take an aircraft to the United States, they want to talk to you there. But my client was saying I'm not ready to go, because I don't understand why I'm arrested and secondly I didn't have any plans to go to the United States," said Yan.

In the US, Bout faces charges of attempting to sell millions of dollars worth of weapons to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which is designated a terrorist organization in the United States, according to the US Justice Department.

Bout was arrested in a posh Bangkok hotel while "discussing business" with five other Russian nationals and one British national.

Bout's partner Andrew Smulian was also present at the meeting but whether he too was arrested in Thailand remains a mystery. Smulian showed up in New York a few days after Bout's Bangkok arrest. He is now in US custody.

"We don't really understand what happened to Smulian, it might be that he was eager to get arrested. It's quite strange," said Bout's lawyer, who acknowledged that Smulian may be preparing to testify against his client.

On Wednesday, Bout's 12-day detention period at a Bangkok maximum security prison will expire, after which Thai prosecutors will need to request another 12-day extension or else press charges against him.

"We hope that no violation of Thai law and international norms are going to be committed by officials in relation with out client," said Yan.

Yan denied press reports that the Russian government wanted Bout extradited to Moscow.

"Mr Bout in Russia is considered to be a law-obedient citizen. We don't have a single criminal case against Mr Bout, his companies or his business. Nothing," said Yan.

Staring his career as an officer in the Soviet army, Bout later became one of the most notorious arms' dealers in the world, accused of selling weapons to the Taliban in Afghanistan and to the al-Qaeda terrorist network. Bout has denied the past charges.

Bout and Smulian face up to 15 years in prison on US charges of conspiracy to provide material support or resources to a designated foreign terrorist organization.

The 2005 movie Lord of War, starring Nicholas Cage, was supposedly inspired by Bout, and the 2007 book Merchant of Death - Money, Guns, Planes and the Man Who Makes War Possible is an expose of his life.

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