Asia-Pacific

'Merchant of death' Viktor Bout extradition 'back on'

Alleged Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout at the Criminal Court in Bangkok (4 October)
Image caption Viktor Bout is alleged to have sold arms to warlords in Africa and Afghanistan

A Thai court has dismissed charges of money laundering and fraud against alleged Russian arms smuggler Viktor Bout, removing the last legal obstacle for his extradition to the US.

Mr Bout was to be extradited in August, to face trial for conspiring to sell weapons to a Colombian rebel group.

But it was postponed while the extra charges brought by the US were heard.

The US and Russia have been squabbling over his fate since his 2008 arrest in a joint Thai-US sting operation.

Mr Bout spent more than 15 years of allegedly running guns to African warlords and Islamic militants.

He was arrested at a Bangkok hotel by US agents posing as Colombian Farc rebels, after he allegedly tried to sell them weapons.

Mr Bout, dubbed the Merchant of Death by a British politician, is pleading not guilty to charges of conspiracy to sell arms to Colombian rebels.

He faces a maximum penalty of life in prison if convicted.

Legal bottleneck

Wearing an orange prison uniform, a neat moustache and shackles, Viktor Bout sat quietly in court as the 25-page ruling was read out.

The court dismissed charges of money laundering and fraud, that were brought by the US to make sure Viktor Bout remained in a Thai jail pending the outcome of his extradition hearing.

In August, an appeals court ordered Mr Bout should be sent to the US, and that it must take place within three months.

But that decision could not be implemented until the additional charges had worked their way though the legal system.

On Monday the Bangkok Criminal Court agreed to fast-track the hearing.

It said the additional charges were dropped due to lack of evidence and other technicalities.

This in theory paves the way for Mr Bout to be extradited, says the BBC's Rachel Harvey in Bangkok.

But given the diplomatic sensitivity and the amount of legal wrangling that has characterised this case, nothing can be taken for granted, our correspondent says.

The Thai government could still step in to halt the extradition.

Moscow has been demanding his release, saying that Mr Bout is an innocent businessman.

Mr Bout, a former Russian air force officer, is thought to have knowledge of Russia's military and intelligence operations.

Analysts say Moscow is perhaps worried he might turn state witness on trial in the US, and there may be some secrets they would rather not have him spill.

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