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Thai Court Clears Way to Extradite Alleged Arms Dealer to US

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A court in Thailand has dismissed charges against an alleged arms dealer, clearing a legal technicality that was preventing the 43-year-old Russian citizen's extradition to the United States.

The U.S. government wants to try Viktor Bout, known as the "Merchant of Death," on a variety of criminal charges. But there is push back from the the Russian government, which says he is an innocent businessman.

In August, an appeals court ruled that Bout should be sent to the United States to face charges including supporting terrorists and conspiring to kill Americans. But a second case against Bout for money laundering and wire fraud required him to remain in Thailand while the case was heard.

The legal hitch resulted in the prosecutors wanting charges dropped, while Bout's attorneys wanted them to stay in place. The court ruled there was not enough evidence to continue the case.

Bout's lawyer says he plans a final challenge to the extradition, but it is not clear an appeal would succeed.

It remains unclear whether a higher court would grant a request to halt the extradition, says Joe Leeds, a managing partner of the law firm Chaninat and Leeds in Bangkok, which specializes in U.S.-Thailand legal issues.

"The court might recognize that they have a legal right to appeal, but the appeal court might say although we recognize your legal right to appeal we have to go through the extradition as it is because we have to follow the trial court's judgment until we decide to overturn that," says Leeds. "So, in other words, they have to show more compelling reasons than in a normal case."

Bout was arrested in Bangkok in 2008 for allegedly trying to sell missiles and other weapons to undercover U.S. agents. They posed as members of FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, and say they told Bout they wanted the weapons to attack American targets.

Bout has been accused of selling arms that fueled conflicts in Africa, South America, and the Middle East. He maintains his innocence and says that he ran a legitimate air cargo business.

Russian authorities have denounced the charges as politically motivated and say Bout should be sent back to Russia. Some regional security analysts say Bout was close to Russia's military intelligence agencies and may have information that Moscow wants kept from Washington.

The case has put Thailand in a difficult position between the United States and Russia.

Last week, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said he is waiting for the court's ruling on extraditing Bout, but that the final decision is up to him.

Article by Daniel Schearf, VOA News