Documents from WikiLeaks published in International Business Times disclosed that American officials warned Washington that the Russian intelligence services are working closely with organized crime. This did not come as a great surprise, as Viktor Bout, one of the most infamous alleged arms traders, was extradited from Thailand last month.
The search for Bout took close to 10 years, and the excruciating extradition procedures took two more years. There were numerous court appeals and legal motions in the Thai courts, but Bout lost in the end. While there was also some political pressure from Russia and the U.S., Thailand observed the necessary legal procedures, and the extradition appeared to be legal.The U.S. legal system is impartial and treats even the worst criminals, American or alien, fairly. The legality of the extradition does not prevent Bout from challenging the jurisdiction of American courts or, for that matter, the extraterritorial application of the U.S. law that led to his arrest. And, provided Bout is adequately represented, he will have a fair trial.
Surprisingly, however, Bout has an ally—the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation. The ministry made numerous statements on Bout’s behalf, challenging the legality of his arrest and extradition—effectively, acting as his attorney.
This is simply inexplicable for two reasons. First, Bout is alleged to be a major international criminal figure involved in weapons smuggling in Liberia, Angola, and Sudan, among others. Why is the Russian Federation—whose president says it needs to fight corruption, including within the ranks of its law enforcement authorities—interested in associating itself with such a character? If Bout is innocent, the U.S. courts will find him as such.
Secondly, the government of Russia has major rule-of-law issues on its hands: The people who ordered the murder of crusading journalist Anna Politkovskaya have not been apprehended, nor have the murderers of Paul Khlebnikov, the U.S.-born editor of the Russian Forbes. Officials who allowed the death in detention of Sergey Magnitsky, the lawyer for Hermitage Capital (once the largest Western equity fund in Russia), were promoted. And prosecution asked for a 14-year sentence in the second trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the businessman whose two cases are about politics and property expropriation, not the normal course of justice. So casting aspersions on the U.S. justice system appears both unfair and counterproductive.
Still, the Russian Federation can do a lot for Bout: It can intervene by diplomatic channels to assure that Bout’s rights are observed—as are those of any other defendant. It can provide consular support, facilitate family visits, and help in selecting legal representation if necessary. However, there is no reason to believe that Bout lacks the funds to pay for the best lawyers money can buy. Anything beyond that should be seen as an inappropriate intervention in the U.S. court system.
Finally, if Bout is found to be an agent of the Russian state, Moscow may offer to exchange him for individuals that represent a high value for the United States and are in Russian custody. This is what happened in the recent spy swap, and this is probably not the route that the Russian government would choose.
Nor it is likely that the court proceedings are going to derail U.S.–Russian relations. The vast array of bilateral and multilateral issues is much broader than activities of one alleged weapons smuggler. The primary interest of the U.S. is to limit terrorists’ access to tools of mayhem or the illegal weapons trade in conflict areas—something Bout was allegedly involved in. It is not in the interest of the U.S.—or Russia—for terrorists, warlords, and drug dealers to have uncontrolled access to arsenals.
The U.S. has acted against other prominent international weapons and drug smuggling figures, including in Latin America, Afghanistan, and Africa. The protection that some in the Russian Federation appear to provide to a criminal suspect such as Bout raises the question of how far his influence and connections go, how typical it is for organized criminals and the state to merge, and why the Russian Federation itself did not prevent these illicit weapons sales from happening.