- arms trafficking - Russia - Thailand - USA
AFP - A court in Thailand surprised close ally the United States Tuesday by rejecting a request for the extradition of Viktor Bout, the Russian alleged arms dealer dubbed the "Merchant of Death".
Bout, who is said to have inspired the Hollywood film "Lord of War" starring Nicolas Cage, has been fighting extradition since his March 2008 arrest in Bangkok on charges of peddling weapons around the world, including to Al-Qaeda.
Russia said it was "satisfied" by the court's ruling, but a senior US diplomat said his country was "disappointed and mystified" and hoped the Thai government would appeal against the decision.
"The Thai court has agreed to dismiss the case," judge Jitakorn Patanasiri said.
The burly, moustachioed Bout flashed a victory sign after the decision. The court ruled that he should remain in detention for another 72 hours to give the attorney general chance to appeal.
Bout was arrested in a sting at a Bangkok hotel after allegedly agreeing to supply surface-to-air missiles to US agents posing as guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
The Thai judge, however, said that the court in Bangkok "does not have the authority to punish actions done by foreigners against other foreigners in another country."
He said that FARC had been designated a terrorist organisation by the United Nations and the United States but not by Thailand, meaning that as far as Thailand was concerned it was a political movement.
"So the defendant's conspiracy counts as a political movement and therefore we have agreed to dismiss the case," Jitakorn said.
Bout's wife, Alla, said she was relieved.
"I was worried but now I am very happy," she told reporters, wiping tears from her eyes. "I can't say much because I am so emotional right now."
Bout, who has been held at a maximum-security prison outside Bangkok, has denied the charges and insists that he ran a legitimate air cargo business.
"We are disappointed and mystified by the court's ruling. We think the facts of the case are relevant to Thai laws," James Entwistle, the deputy chief of mission at the US embassy in Bangkok, told reporters.
He said that US officials would "consult closely with the Thai government."
"We understand they will make clear their intention to appeal the decision and we will support that in any way we can," he added.
The 42-year-old former Soviet air force pilot Bout speaks six languages and is known by eight different aliases.
Bout had faced life in prison if sent to the United States and convicted there on terrorism charges, including conspiracy to kill US officers or employees and conspiracy to acquire and use an anti-aircraft missile.
A US indictment accused him of using a fleet of cargo planes to transport weapons and military equipment to Africa, South America and the Middle East.
The nickname "Merchant of Death" was coined by a former British foreign office minister and also used for a 2007 book on Bout's alleged activities.