Alleged Top Arms Dealer Arrested

Jeff Abramson

In early March, Thai authorities working in close cooperation with the United States apprehended Victor Bout, arguably the world’s best known suspected international dealer of conventional arms. The United States plans to extradite and prosecute Bout for conspiring to aid a terrorist organization. 

U.S. Attorney Michael Garcia announced March 6 that Thai police had captured Bout the previous evening. Garcia also released charges that Bout had traveled to Thailand in order to sell weapons to U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency agents posing as representatives of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The supposed multimillion-dollar weapons deal included surface-to-air missile systems and armor-piercing rocket launchers.

Garcia said that the United States will seek to extradite Bout on charges of conspiracy to provide material support or resources to a designated foreign terrorist organization. Those charges carry a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison. The Department of State designated the FARC a terrorist organization in October 1997.

In the years since the Soviet Union’s collapse, Bout is suspected of using his Soviet military background to develop a sophisticated transport system that supplied arms to governments and rebels in Africa, pro- and anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan, and South American guerrilla groups, as well as U.S. forces and allies in Iraq. Bout’s capture drew significant media attention. He was the subject of the popular book Merchant of Death (2007) and is likely the protoytpe for the arms dealer played by Nicholas Cage in the 2005 movie “Lord of War.”

Due to fears of what Bout might reveal about his past dealings with Washington, there was some speculation that the United States might not follow up on extradition plans. Countering these rumors, a State Department official confirmed to Arms Control Today March 21 that a warrant for Bout’s provisional arrest has been lodged and that the United States is preparing a formal extradition request.

The Associated Press March 8 reported that Stephen Rapp, chief prosecutor for a UN-backed war crimes tribunal for Sierra Leone, was interested in putting Bout on trial. Other sources speculated that Russia might seek Bout’s return or alternatively that it had quietly given up Bout as a sign of goodwill. In addition, Belgium issued a warrant for Bout in 2002 for money laundering, but that warrant expired in 2006 and the country is not seeking his extradition, according to a Belgian embassy official who spoke with Arms Control Today on March 27. Despite the possible international permutations, the State Department official said in an e-mail that “[w]e know of no requests by other countries to Thailand for the extradition or surrender of Bout.”

The use of counterterrorism laws against arms dealers is an emerging law enforcement method. Bout’s associate, Andrew Smulian, was also indicted in this case and appeared in a New York court March 10. In June 2007, the same U.S. district court announced the capture of Monzer al Kassar in Spain for conspiring to supply the FARC.

Shortly after Bout was taken into custody, Thai police transferred him to a maximum-security prison. Thai investigators are working to determine whether they will prosecute a case. According to Thai law, he can be held for up to 84 days without being charged, but a court must reapprove such detention every 12 days.

Thai courts denied initial requests for bail and on March 19 remanded Bout for another 12 days to a maximum-security prison. Bout maintains his innocence. When Bout might be extradited depends on the outcome of the Thai investigation and possible trial. Experts believe that if he were granted bail, he could easily flee back to Russia where he has enjoyed relative freedom most of this decade.

Until now, attempts to capture or contain Bout have been thwarted. In 2001 the United Nations listed Bout on an international travel ban. After Bout appeared on a Moscow radio broadcast in 2002, Belgium asked Russia for judicial assistance in apprehending Bout but Russian authorities did not respond to the request. In 2004 and 2005, the U.S. Department of the Treasury froze Bout’s assets as well as those of certain companies and people associated with him. In 2007 the United States expanded those measures, and the UN placed many of the same people and companies on its sanctions list.

Given Bout’s ability to slip through international controls, until he is officially sentenced, it is difficult to know if Garcia’s March 6 claim is true that this “marks the end of the reign of one of the world’s most wanted arms traffickers.”