BANGKOK — A Thai court on Tuesday rejected a U.S. request to extradite a Russian arms dealer who allegedly sold weapons to dictators and warlords around the world, raising the prospect that he could be freed by the weekend.
The unexpected ruling in favor of Viktor Bout was welcomed by Russia. The United States, which had mounted the sting operation that led to his arrest at a Bangkok hotel, said it was "mystified" by the court's decision.
Bangkok Criminal Court Judge Chittakorn Pattanasiri said Thai prosecutors have 72 hours to indicate whether to appeal, and, if not, Bout will be set free. If an appeal is filed, Bout will be held pending further proceedings.
The 42-year-old Bout, who has denied any wrongdoing, jumped up from his seat upon hearing Tuesday's ruling and hugged his crying wife. He flashed a victory sign to TV cameras as he was escorted from the courtroom by guards.
Bout's extradition hearing was marred by allegations from both the Americans and Russians, some in public, mostly in private, accusing each other political interference and of bribing Thai officials – a common practice in a country where the judiciary is notoriously corrupt.
"Round one has gone to Bout, but the battle for justice for this international menace is not over. It is unacceptable that this man goes free," Ed Royce, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on terrorism, said in a statement. "Politics seems to have trumped the law. Something is rotten in Bangkok."
There was no immediate comment from the Thai government.
Bout has never been tried despite being the subject of U.N. sanctions and a Belgian money-laundering indictment. Over the past two decades, he has allegedly supplied weapons used in civil wars in South America, the Middle East and Africa.
He was arrested in March 2008 after U.S. agents posed as arms buyers for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which Washington classifies as a terrorist organization.
Two months later, he was indicted on charges of conspiring to sell millions of dollars worth of weapons to FARC, including more than 700 surface-to-air missiles, thousands of guns, high-tech helicopters and airplanes outfitted with grenade launchers and missiles.
If convicted in the U.S. of the most serious terrorism-related charges, he could be sentenced to life in prison.
When the Thai court took up the request to extradite Bout in June 2008, it seemed like an open and shut case. Under the Thai-American extradition treaty, authorities only needed to identify Bout, prove his crimes merit a trial and show the case was not political.
But from the start, Bout's extradition hearing was marred by repeated delays as a defense attorney fell sick and witnesses failed to turn up. The delays inspired a Cold War-era tug of war between Russia and the United States.
Arms trade experts have alleged Bout has been useful for Russia's intelligence apparatus, and that Russia did not want him to go on trial in the United States. American lawmakers led by Royce accused the Russians of influencing the process. The Russian Foreign Ministry has publicly criticized the pressure it said was being applied on Thailand by the Americans.
In interviews with The Associated Press, representatives on both sides have leveled unproved accusations of Thai officials being bribed by the other side.
Still, Bout's extradition appeared inevitable after a Thai Foreign Ministry official told the court in May that the request met the conditions of the Thai-American extradition treaty.
Yet on Tuesday, Judge Chittakorn rejected the extradition request because he deemed FARC a political movement, rather than a terrorist group, which meant that Bout's alleged crimes were political offenses. Extradition cannot be granted when it involves a political offense.
Chittakorn also ruled the extradition treaty did not apply because Bout's alleged crimes couldn't be prosecuted in Thailand and did not involve Thai citizens or Thai interests.
U.S. Embassy deputy chief of mission James F. Entwistle said Thai prosecutors have said they will appeal.
"We're disappointed and mystified by this lower court ruling," Entwistle said. "We think the facts, relevant Thai law, and the terms of the bilateral extradition treaty clearly supports the extradition of Viktor Bout to the United States to stand trial on serious terrorism charges."
In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters any appeal would be up to the Thai government. "We're disappointed in the court decision," he said.
Russian Embassy official Andrey V. Dvornikov said Moscow was "satisfied" with the court's decision and he was awaiting the Thai prosecutors' decision on an appeal. "This case will be over when Mr. Bout is home," he said.
The U.N. suspects Bout's clients have included warlords and dictators, including Liberia's Charles Taylor and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, the late dictator Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire and both sides of the civil war in Angola. Bout, whose network of companies had as many as 50 airplanes, also reportedly supplied arms to the Taliban and, indirectly, al-Qaida – charges he has repeatedly denied.
In their 2007 book, "Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible," Steve Braun and Douglas Farah alleged Bout sold as many as 10,000 AK-47 assault rifles to FARC in the late 1990s through a front company.
The FARC has been trying to overthrow successive Colombian governments for a half-century. It has been put on the defensive in recent years by Colombia's U.S.-backed military.
Bout's nickname, the "Merchant of Death," came in 2000 from a minister at Britain's Foreign Office who was concerned about Bout allegedly ferrying weapons around Africa. Bout is widely believed to be a model for the arms dealer portrayed by Nicolas Cage in the 2005 movie "Lord of War."
David M. Crane, an international law professor at Syracuse University and former prosecutor of the Sierra Leone tribunal that indicted Charles Taylor, said Bout would likely return to weapons dealing if he is set free.
"He was a player and could be a player again. This guy has nine lives," Crane said. "He certainly has the capability of showing up in the wrong place at the wrong time and providing weapons for cash or diamonds."