The world's biggest arms dealer defends himself

Monday, December 22, 2008

BANGKOK, Thailand -- The man dubbed the "Merchant of Death" for his alleged arms smuggling activities took the stand Monday for the first time to fight extradition to the United States and deny charges that he conspired to arm Colombian rebels.

Dressed in an orange prison uniform, Viktor Bout was shackled at the ankles but looked relaxed and spoke in mostly measured tones during his testimony at Bangkok's Criminal Court.

The United States is seeking the extradition of Bout, who was arrested in the Thai capital in a sting operation in which undercover U.S. agents posed as Latin American rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

"I never met or talked to anyone from FARC," Bout told the court. "I didn't do anything wrong in Thailand. I have never been to Colombia or the United States."

The 41-year-old Russian, who has long denied any involvement in illicit activities, was purportedly the model for the arms dealer portrayed by Nicolas Cage in the 2005 movie "Lord of War."

He was arrested in March at a Bangkok luxury hotel and subsequently indicted in the U.S. on four terrorism-related charges.

Bout identified himself to the court as "a 41-year-old businessman." He spoke in Russian, which was translated to Thai.

Asked to state his line of work, Bout replied, "I am in aviation and construction."

Bout said he had traveled to Bangkok "to relax" and to meet with "a Thai businessman who wanted to buy airplanes."

"I did not commit any terrorist acts," said Bout, claiming he was a pawn in an American plot.

"The U.S. is trying to use this to cover up its internal problems and prevent good relations between Thailand and Russia," said Bout, briefly raising his voice and shaking his finger as he spoke. He did not elaborate.

At one point, Bout held up two fingers and flashed the victory sign to an acquaintance in the courtroom, where his mother and wife were present. After a two-hour testimony, the court adjorned for lunch and Bout smiled for cameras as police escorted him out.

According to reports by U.N. agencies and several Western governments, Bout has delivered arms to dictators and warlords in Africa and Afghanistan, allegedly breaking several U.N. arms embargoes in the process.

His extradition hearing started in June but has been repeatedly delayed, with a revolving door of defense attorneys.

Bangkok's Criminal Court has said it expects the hearing to wrap up Wednesday but one of Bout's defense attorneys, Preecha Prasertsak, said he planned to seek an extension to locate more witnesses.

At an earlier hearing, an agent of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration testified that his agency set up the operation that lured Bout from Russia to his arrest in the Thai capital.

DEA agent Robert Zachariasiewicz told the court that Bout faces U.S. charges of conspiring to kill Americans, conspiring to kill U.S. officers or employees, conspiring to provide material support to terrorists and conspiring to acquire and use an anti-aircraft missile. He could face a maximum penalty of life in prison if convicted.

The original arrest warrant issued in Thailand was based on a charge of using the country as a base to negotiate a weapons deal with terrorists. But that charge was dropped in April and a second arrest warrant issued asking for his extradition to the United States.

Prosecutor Sanchai Krungkanjana has said the first arrest warrant had been dropped because "there was insufficient evidence in Thailand" but there was enough evidence in the U.S. to approve Bout's extradition.

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