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Merchant of death

by Claudia Isabel Rittel
Had it not been for Victor Bout, many African wars might well have ended earlier. He helped keep up the supply of arms and ammunition. For more than a year, Bout has been awaiting trial in a prison in Thailand, but recently a court ruled that there was no case against him.

“Believe me, I won’t be in court for a minute,” the arms dealer says. His pursuer from Interpol replies: “You must live in cloud cuckoo-land.” But the trafficker is right; only shortly after, he walks free. Thus ends Andreas Niccol’s movie “Lord of War”. His work of fiction flickered over cinema screens in 2005. Now it may have a real-life sequel.

Victor Bout is a 42-year-old arms dealer, who has spent the last 17 months in a Bangkok jail. He could soon be a free man again. Bout is accused of having supplied arms to parties in some of the world’s worst conflicts in recent years. But a Thai court has now rejected the application for his extradition to the United States. The grounds for the ruling are simple: Bout is neither charged with acts that constitute crimes against Thailand, nor does Thailand consider the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) a terrorist organisation.

The case against Bout hinges on the Colombian rebels’ because his capture was the result of an under-cover operation in which agents of the US Drug Enforcement Administration posed as members of the guerrilla organisation seeking to buy arms. James Entwistle, the deputy US ambassador to Thailand spoke of being disappointed and mystified immediately after the ruling was announced in August.

Russian diplomats, however, welcomed the decision. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov himself was involved in seeking Bout’s release in July. International media believe the ruling against extradition was influenced by pressure from Moscow.

Libyan leader Muammer Gadaffi and Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president, are said to have been among Bout's regular customers. Taylor is currently on trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity at the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone. Furthermore, Bout is alleged to have supplied rebel groups in Angola, Zaire, the Middle East and Afghanistan.

But Bout also served forces that are legitimate in Western eyes. He shipped troops into crisis zones for the United Nations. And in 2003, he was engaged by the US to supply arms to Iraq’s armed forces. Newspapers have reported that this was a case of Washington failing to identify who was behind the contracted company until it was too late. According to Mathias John, arms expert with Amnesty International Germany, this is often very difficult to make out. “Arms dealers often obscure their activities in a web of transport companies,” he says. Moreover, they also operate through “highly diversified companies that engage in a whole range of lines of business.”

Arms merchants deliberately exploit grey areas. The member states of the European Union agreed on a set of common rules in 2003, but there are still plenty of countries with no laws on arms dealing at all. “People like Bout can always work out of countries with relatively lax rules,” the AI activist says.

Such countries are not even the only bolt-holes available to arms traffickers like Bout. An AI report points to a general lack of regulation of arms dealing and arms brokering. Moreover, customs checks are said to be inadequate, so better systems are needed to verify arms inventories. On top of all this, the report bemoans that business for arms traffickers is massively facilitated by tax havens and flags of convenience.

It is not rare, AI expert John says, for arms to disappear in conflicts and later be used for human rights violations. According to him, that’s precisely why a binding international arms-trade treaty is necessary. That is something international non-governmental groups have been campaigning for. Indeed, the UN has discussed the issue, though without much success so far. An open-ended working group was established to draft proposals. According to John, mainly the USA has delayed the process in the past.

Bout has been charged by a US court in New York with conspiring to kill Ameri-can citizens. If convicted, he would probably face a life sentence. But first, Thailand would have to extradite him to the United States. And whether that will happen is anyone’s guess at present. Thai prosecutors launched a last-minute appeal against the Bangkok court ruling. They now have until mid-September to formally submit their case, and then the decision will rest with the court.

Bout, who has used several alias names and held five passports, was born in January 1967 in Tajikistan. A graduate of the Military Institute of Foreign Languages in Moscow, he also attended a mili­tary academy and has a degree in economic affairs. According to media reports, he entered the transport business in 1992, at the age of 25, buying three Antonov transport planes for $ 120,000. At first he shipped flowers, only later switching to arms, ammunition and diamonds.

Secret services and Interpol tried to catch him for years. But he proved elusive. In 2002, Belgium issued an international warrant for his arrest. It charged him with money-laundering and smuggling diamonds on Belgian soil.

“He'll get what he deserves,” says an Interpol officer in the movie. But his colleague is cautious: “I wouldn’t be too sure of that.” In real life, too, there is no knowing how the story will end. Bout may be convicted – or walk free.

Claudia Isabel Rittel