'Thais Pressured Bout to Fly to U.S.'

APDasgupta Yan, a lawyer for Viktor Bout, showing a copy of his client's passport to reporters in Bangkok on Monday.
BANGKOK -- Thai police pressed purported arms dealer Viktor Bout to board a plane for the United States hours after his arrest, his lawyer said Monday.

"He was doing everything in his power, including physical resistance, not to fly to the U.S.," lawyer Yan Dasgupta told reporters in Bangkok, where his client was caught in a U.S. sting operation on March 6.

Bout was not harmed and remains in a Bangkok prison, but the move was unlawful because it did not follow proper procedure under a Thai-U.S. extradition treaty, Yan said.

"Even with his consent, it would have been illegal," he said.

Thai police denied attempting to coerce Bout, dubbed the "Merchant of Death" of the clandestine arms trade and picked up from a Bangkok hotel hours after arriving from Moscow.

"That is just lawyer's talk," said Phetcharat Saengchai, who is leading the Thai investigation.

"We have to follow the Thai legal process by first bringing this terrorism-related case to court," Phetcharat said. "We cannot simply put him on a plane."

Bout was denied bail last week on a Thai charge of "seeking or gathering assets for terrorism."

He is also charged in New York with conspiring to sell weapons worth millions of dollars to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

Bout's British associate, Andrew Smulian, was accused of similar charges on March 10 after he was arrested in New York.

Bout told police that he was in Bangkok on vacation, and his lawyers say their client was not involved with terrorist groups such as al-Qaida or the Southeast Asian network linked to it, Jemaah Islamiah.

"He considers his arrest unlawful and groundless," said Yan, adding that Bout faced no charges in Russia, where he operates an aircraft repair company.

According to the United Nations and the U.S. Treasury Department, Bout runs a network of air cargo companies and has sold or brokered arms that have helped fuel wars in Afghanistan, Angola, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Sudan.

The United States, which has given billions of dollars in military aid to Colombia to fight the Marxist rebels and drug cartels, has said it will seek Bout's extradition.

Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Tharit Jaroongwat said no formal request had been received from Washington "because they still need to gather evidence and build a case against him."

U.S. officials were not immediately available to comment.

Thai police, who can detain Bout for three months, say they expect to finish their investigation in two months before submitting it to prosecutors.

Thai police have said Bout's extradition would have to wait until after he was tried in Thailand. Thai laws require detained foreign terror suspects to be tried in the country.

Yan said Bout was in a "relatively good mood" in prison, though he was upset that he could not get newspapers in English or write letters home in Russian. He spends much of his time reading English translations of Thai law, he said.

"His game is not over at all," Yan said, responding to media reports of what Bout had said when he was arrested. "I'm quite optimistic about Mr. Bout's future."

If convicted, Bout could face 10 years in prison on the Thai charge and 15 years in the United States.