U.S. Officials Fear Notorious Russian Arms Dealer Could Walk Free

The Obama administration is deeply worried that an appeals court in Thailand will issue a ruling tonight allowing a Russian alleged to be one of the world's most notorious illicit arms dealers to walk free. U.S. officials, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information, say that for months the Russian government led by Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev has been putting heavy diplomatic pressure behind the scenes on Thai authorities to release Victor Bout, a veteran black- and gray-market arms peddler sometimes known as the "merchant of death" who has been held in custody by Thailand since April 2008 for possible extradition to the U.S., where he faces two federal indictments on weapons and conspiracy charges. The appeals court has reportedly scheduled a hearing to release a ruling in the case on Friday morning, Bangkok time, which is in the middle of the night, Washington time.

U.S. officials say they don't know how the court will rule. But the fear in Washington is that the ruling will somehow result in Bout being released temporarily or permanently. In either case, U.S. officials fear that Bout, who American officials believe is still well connected in the Kremlin, will disappear or seek protection from Russian authorities—for example, by taking refuge in the Russian Embassy in Bangkok—and therefore escape the long arm of the American law.

A year ago—according to an op-ed on the case by GOP Rep. Ed Royce that was published in The Washington Post on Thursday—a Thai court rejected a U.S. request for Bout's extradition on the grounds that FARC, a Colombian militia the U.S. has formally labeled a terrorist organization and whose dealings with Bout were the focus of a 2008 U.S. indictment against him, was not a terror group. (In fact, the FARC operatives whose dealings with Bout led to his indictment turned out to be undercover informants for the Drug Enforcement Administration, who with the cooperation of Thai authorities had ensnared him in a "sting.") In an effort to provide themselves with "insurance" that Bout could still be held and extradited even if Thai authorities rejected the 2008 U.S. charges, American prosecutors filed a new case against him last January. This case charged Bout and a sidekick with carrying out or brokering arms deals that fueled conflicts in Afghanistan, Angola, Liberia, Rwanda, and Sudan, among other places.

But U.S. officials are not convinced that even the fresh charges will be enough to persuade Thai authorities to hold onto Bout. One theory circulating among people in Washington who have been following the case closely is that the Thai court might decide to release him on "compassionate" or "humanitarian" grounds, in much the same way that Scottish authorities controversially decided last year to release Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, the Libyan convicted of carrying out the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. In the Megrahi case, Scottish authorities released him on the grounds that he was suffering from prostate cancer and likely to die within three months. The fact that Megrahi is still alive today has caused heartburn for the new British coalition government and provoked demands in the U.S. Congress for investigations into whether his release was somehow engineered as a result of pressure from the disgraced British oil giant BP.

Details of Bout's current medical condition were not immediately available. But a person in Washington who has followed the case closely said that in recent court appearances, the once corpulent Russian appeared to have lost a considerable amount of weight.

Officials said that the Obama administration—likely including officials at the White House—has engaged in very high-level contacts with Thai authorities over a period of months to try to convince them that Bout should be held and that the U.S. extradition request should be honored. But as the clock ticks down to Friday's ruling, U.S. officials say the omens emerging from Bangkok are not encouraging.