'Merchant of Death' Viktor Bout Is Arrested in Thailand

| Thu Mar. 6, 2008 12:22 PM EST

The fictional Yuri Orlov (played by Nicholas Cage in the 2005 film, Lord of War, based on the story of real-life weapons smuggler Viktor Bout) may have excelled at breaking arms embargoes, but he was even better at evading responsibility for his actions. Some version of the above scene, in which Orlov explains why he will never be stopped to an earnest, but sadly powerless Interpol agent who's spent his entire career in a futile attempt to bust him, may now be playing itself out in a Thailand jail. The news this morning is that Bout, dubbed the "Merchant of Death" by journalists Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun in their recent book of the same title, has been arrested at a five-star hotel in Bangkok.

According to initial reports, Bout was captured by Thai police, acting on a warrant issued by Thai courts that charges the arms smuggler with "attempted mass murder." "He is now in the custody of the Crime Suppression Division," said Major General Pongpat Chayaphan of the Thai police. "We have followed him for several months. He just came back to Thailand today. We will take legal action against him here, before deporting him to another country."

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Thailand has suggested the United States as a likely destination for Bout. Indeed, the DEA has a warrant out for Bout's arrest for his work on behalf of FARC rebels in Colombia. But America is just one of several nations competing for Bout's extradition. Another is Belgium, which issued a warrant for his arrest in 2002, as did Interpol the same year. And now Russia—presumably to keep quiet the as-yet undiscovered details of Bout's long career—is suggesting that Bout face justice there. (It should be noted that Bout lived openly in Moscow for the last several years without any interference from Putin's regime.)

Bout, a former Soviet intelligence officer, enjoyed a prolific career in the black market weapons business, delivering arms to rogue regimes the world over, often arming both sides of a conflict to maximize profits. His personal biography might as well have been lifted from the pages of John le Carré—he is variously described as having been born in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Ukraine; he is fluent in six languages, including Russian, Uzbek, English, French, and Portuguese; he has at least five passports; his weapons shipments have fueled bloodshed on five continents; he supplied the Taliban in Afghanistan, Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, UNITA in Angola, the RUF in Sierra Leone, Charles Taylor in Liberia, FARC in Colombia, and (according to a Mother Jones interview with Farah) Hezbollah in Lebanon, among many others; and he has no known political or philosophical concerns other than to make money. In short, he's an operator perfectly conceived to skip the borders of nation states and operate at large in a world where there are vast piles of cash to be made by men unburdened by conscience.

For Bout's part, he denies any wrongdoing and has long portrayed himself merely as a good businessman doing good business. "I've never done anything in my life for which I should be afraid," he once told a reporter in broken English. "Why should I be having to take chances and risking to do some tricky business and then later on be in a position where you did something extremely wrong?"

You can bet that Bout will continue to proclaim his innocence if extradited to the United States—and (to the embarrassment of U.S. authorities) his argument will not be entirely empty. As Farrah and Braun reported in their book about the arms dealer, Bout's planes were among the first to ferry supplies to U.S. forces after the fall of Baghdad in 2003, "despite his being the subject of an Interpol red notice, an Executive Order signed by President Bush, and numerous Treasury Department sanctions," writes Farah on his blog. Bout's fleet of aircraft, working for the U.S. military and on contract for firms like KBR and FedEx, ultimately made an estimated 1,000 trips to Iraq, consuming 500,000 gallons of free aviation fuel provided by the Pentagon. For his trouble, Bout netted about $60 million. And as distasteful as this association may be, it was not the first time the U.S. had considered tapping Bout as a resource in the war on terror; he was granted a temporary visa waiver to enter the Unites States on two occasions after September 11, allegedly for discussions with U.S. officials on how he might help combat Al Qaeda and the Taliban. One wonders how many other stories Bout could tell if given the chance in a U.S. courtroom. Enough to score him a "Get Out of Jail Free" card? Hey, Nicholas Cage did it. Maybe Bout can, too.

A formal announcement of Bout's arrest is due to be made later today at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok. Chances are his recent dealings with Uncle Sam will escape mention.

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