BANGKOK // The Thai government extradited accused Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout to the United States today to face terrorism charges, rejecting heavy pressure from Moscow for him to be freed.
The Cabinet approved Bout's extradition today after a long legal battle, and Police Col Supisarn Bhakdinarinath said the 43-year-old Russian was put aboard a plane in Bangkok at about 1:30pm in the custody of eight US officials.
Thailand's prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, told reporters after the Cabinet meeting that the government sided with an earlier appeals court decision that Bout could be extradited.
Bout, a former Soviet air force officer who is reputed to have been one of the world's most prolific arms dealers, was arrested at a Bangkok luxury hotel in March 2008 as part of a sting operation led by US agents.
The head of a lucrative air transport empire, Bout had long evaded UN and US sanctions aimed at blocking his financial activities and restricting his travel. He claims he ran a legitimate business and never sold weapons, and fought hard to avoid extradition.
"This is an unequivocally political decision, lobbied by the US government," Bout's wife Alla said in Bangkok, according to televised remarks on Russia's NTV network. "It has no legal basis whatsoever."
Bout has allegedly supplied weapons that fueled civil wars in South America, the Middle East and Africa, with clients including Liberia's Charles Taylor and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and both sides in Angola's civil war.
Russia had made strong public statements against Bout's extradition, and privately, both Moscow and Washington were reported to be exerting heavy pressure on Mr Abhisit's government. US lawmakers also became involved, sending a letter to the Thai government urging extradition.
A Thai court in August of 2009 originally rejected Washington's request for Bout's extradition on terrorism-related charges. After that ruling was reversed by an appeals court in August this year, the US moved to get him out quickly, sending a special plane to stand by.
However, just ahead of the appeals court ruling, the United States forwarded new money-laundering and wire fraud charges to Thailand in an attempt to keep Bout detained if the court ordered his release. But the move backfired by requiring a hearing on the new charges. Those were dismissed in early October.
Russia says Bout is an innocent businessman and wants him in Moscow. Experts say Bout has knowledge of Russia's military and intelligence operations and that Moscow does not want him going on trial in the United States.