Legendary Arms Dealer Busted in Bangkok
By Wendell Minnick and Nabi Abdullaev
TAIPEI and MOSCOW - Russian Victor Bout, 41, was arrested March 6 in Bangkok and charged with conspiring to sell weapons, including surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems and armor piercing rocket launchers, to the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) officials announced.
The Russian bureau of Interpol confirmed March 6 that Bout had been on its list since February 2002, when Belgian police issued an international warrant, alleging that he was behind a scheme to launder the profits from sales of weapons in Africa.
A bureau official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that even if he had been arrested in Russia, Bout would not have been extradited to a third country.
However, Bout's Russian attorney, Viktor Burobin, told journalists in Moscow on March 7 that no formal charges had been brought against Bout so far in Thailand. He also said that Bout had no problems with the law in Russia and that Russian law enforcers had never received any official requests from the U.S. to investigate Bout.
"Yesterday, I spoke to the officials in the [Russian] Office of the Prosecutor General; they don't have any single document [on Bout] from the U.S. or any other country," Burobin said. "This means that the Russian citizen was arrested deceptively on a foreign territory, and this is unacceptable."
Burobin said he will work to have Bout extradited to Russia, and not to be tried in a third country.
"Even if he was trafficking arms in third countries, Russian citizens should be tried by a Russian court," he said.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said March 6 that it had sent a request to Thai authorities demanding an explanation of Bout's arrest.
Bout was arrested at the Sofitel Silom Hotel on U.S. charges by Thai authorities in Bangkok. He faces a maximum 15-year prison sentence.
Sources in Bangkok said an individual claiming to be Bout had visited Bangkok on several occasions in 2007.
Richard Chichakli, who described himself as Bout's friend, said that the DEA request "was very strange because Bout has never been accused of having anything to do with drugs," and arms trafficking is the purview of another agency in the U.S.
Bout was the model for the 2005 movie "Lord of War," starring Nicholas Cage, based on the book "Merchant of Death" by Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun.
Bout built a logistics network that included a spider's web of front companies and airlines with a fleet of 50 aging Russian cargo aircraft. Dubbed the "embargo buster," he was accused of violating United Nations arms embargos to fly weapons to the Taliban in Afghanistan, Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, Zaire dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Bout changed passports and adopted aliases, reinventing himself and his companies and airlines regularly to make it difficult to locate him. In 2002, he moved from Brussels to Moscow after Belgian authorities issued a warrant for his arrest.
Little was done to stop Bout until after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S., when efforts to stop him were intensified, leading to a 2003 U.N. report detailing his activities. After reading the report, former British Foreign Office Minister Peter Hain said, "The U.N. has exposed Bout as the center of a spider's web of shady arms dealers, diamond brokers and other operatives, sustaining the wars."
In April 2005, the U.S. Treasury Department froze Bout's assets and issued a report that identified 30 companies connected with him.
"Today's action prohibits any transactions between U.S. persons and the designated entities and also freezes any assets of the designated persons that are within U.S. jurisdiction," the report stated.
"Shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Bout, a former Soviet air force officer with a gift for languages, was able to acquire surplus or obsolete airplanes which he used to deliver arms and ammunition from old Soviet stockpiles," it said. "Notably, information available to the U.S. government shows that Bout profited $50 million from supplying the Taliban with military equipment when they ruled Afghanistan. Today, Bout has the capacity to transport tanks, helicopters and weapons by the tons to virtually any point in the world."
According to the DEA, between November 2007 and February 2008, Bout agreed to sell weapons to the FARC.
According to a DEA press release, Bout, "During a series of recorded telephone calls and e-mails ... agreed to sell the weapons to two confidential sources working with the DEA, who held themselves out as FARC representatives acquiring these weapons for the FARC for use in Colombia." The FARC is a designated foreign terrorist organization based in Colombia.
Bout said he had 100 SAMs available immediately and could also provide helicopters and armor-piercing rocket launchers, according to the DEA. Bout asked $5 million for the weapons.
Thai authorities have said an investigation to determine whether both men violated Thai laws would be conducted before extradition to the United States was granted.