Why Russia defends a 'merchant of death'
International criminals with ties to the Russian government are accustomed to enjoying impunity. A couple even sit in the parliament despite being charged by foreign police with murder. So it's not surprising that the extradition from Thailand to the United States Tuesday of Viktor Bout, a notorious arms trafficker known as the "merchant of death," has prompted loud cries of outrage from Moscow.
"Extreme unjustice," fumed Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Said the Foreign Ministry: "There is no doubt that the illegal extradition of V.A. Bout came as a consequence of unprecedented political pressure" from the United States.
You'd think that the Obama administration had kidnapped a national hero. So it's worth recalling just who Moscow is defending. Bout, a 43-year-old former Russian army translator, has for two decades supplied weapons or cash to rogue regimes and terrorist movements around the world -- including the Taliban and al-Qaeda. He has fueled massive bloodshed in Africa, flying weapons into places like the Congo, Liberia, Sudan and Sierra Leone.
He was finally caught in Bangkok in March 2008 after the Drug Enforcement
Agency Administration lured him there in a sting operation. Bout thought he was there to meet representatives of Colombia's FARC terrorist movement; he was tape recorded offering to sell missiles that he said could destroy U.S. drug surveillance aircraft.
After Bout's arrest Russia spared no effort to get him out of jail and prevent his extradition. Discounted oil was reportedly offered to the Thai government. Moscow not-so-subtly threatened both Thailand and the United States with retaliation if Bout were extradited. Even the "reset" of relations between the Obama administration and the regime of Vladimir Putin was said to be at risk.
Imagine Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton righteously denouncing the "injustice" of the arrest by a democratic country of a U.S. mafia kingpin or drug trafficker. Most countries stick to "quiet diplomacy" when trying to rescue their rogues -- when they try at all. Yet Putin's regime seems to have no scruples about publicly campaigning for Bout.
Moscow's motive is not merely the defense of a Russian citizen. Experts like Douglas Farah, a former Post reporter who co-authored a book about Bout, think Russia's elite are terrified of what Bout might reveal as a part of a plea bargain with U.S. prosecutors. Where did he obtain the weapons and helicopters he has been delivering to war zones, or the Russian-made transport aircraft that carried them? Did he deliver Russian weapons to Hezbollah? And who encouraged him to do business with the FARC? The guerrilla movement has been backed by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who in turn is one of the biggest customers of the Russian arms industry.
All good questions that Putin does not want Bout to answer.
To be sure, the "merchant of death" may have embarrassing information about the U.S. government. His companies reportedly were hired as subcontractors by the Pentagon to deliver weapons to Iraq in 2003 and 2004. But it is the U.S. government, after all, that is prosecuting Bout -- presumably it is ready to deal with his revelations. For Russia, on the other hand, Bout's trial could offer a rare example of the application of the rule of law to one of the country's state-sponsored outlaws. Let's hope it's a precedent.
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