A surprise ruling by a Thai judge Tuesday could free one of the world's most notorious weapons dealers, who has been held in jail since his arrest more than a year ago, although a Thursday filing by Thai prosecutors is expected to delay that.
The decision, to deny an extradition request by the U.S. government, was a victory for the Russian government, which has been working to free its citizen, Viktor Bout, since he was busted in a joint U.S.-Thai sting operation that was years in the making.
"To say I was shocked would be an understatement," said Michael Braun, the former senior Drug Enforcement Administration official who masterminded Bout's capture, one of the biggest arrests in the agency's history.
U.S. officials said Thursday they were informed that Thai authorities had filed an intent to appeal the ruling with the court. That appeal could delay Bout's release by months, pending a possible reversal by a higher Thai court. Officials at the Thai embassy in Washington could not be reached for comment.
While U.S. authorities worked hand-in-glove with the Thai government to engineer Bout's arrest, detention and extradition proceedings, the Russians had deployed emissaries to negotiate for Bout's release. Braun and others believe a series of favorable oil and weapons deals cut recently between the two countries were also part of a high-level campaign to free the Russian. "I think they were trying to buy his way out," he said flatly.
"Bout has been working for the Russians for a long time," said Douglas Farah, a former journalist who co-wrote the definitive tome on Bout's career, "Merchant of Death." Farah said the Russians have recently used Bout's services in Iran and Beirut.
Vanda Falbab-Brown, an expert at the Brookings Institution, concurred. "Bout has knowledge of Russia's military and underworld," she said. His testimony in a U.S. court, or cooperation with U.S. prosecutors, "would make a lot of people in Russia quite uncomfortable."
Officials at the Russian embassy in Washington, D.C. could not be reached for comment.
The State Department has said it was leaving the matter in the hands of Thai authorities, who have been arguing the case for extradition before the Thai judge.
Privately, some U.S. officials say they are concerned Thailand may never turn Bout over to them. One case still fresh in their mind is the 2008 arrest of Jamshid Ghassemi, an Iranian Air Force officer, for arms trafficking and money laundering by Thai authorities with a U.S. warrant.
Although Ghassemi was arrested with very sensitive guidance missile systems that were part of an alleged arms trafficking conspiracy, a Thai appellate court refused to release him to the U.S., where federal prosecutors wanted to put him on trial.
Bout made his fortune in the 1990s selling Soviet-era weaponry to Third World despots and insurgent groups. Using a network of entertwined corporations, Bout dispatched fleets of Cold War-era Soviet cargo planes to some of the most inhospitable corners of the earth, running guns for dictators, including Liberia's Charles Taylor and Zaire's Mubuto Sese Seko, as well as rebel leaders in Angola, Sierra Leone and beyond. By 2000, U.S. government officials considered him one of the leading threats to the United States, on par with Osama bin Laden and global warming.