Victor Bout, the notorious arms dealer, is presently being held in a high-security Bangkok prison. The US is pressuring Thailand to extradite him. On the other hand, the Russian government does not want the extradition to proceed. Bout's recent interview with the Russian newpaper Kommersant has been translated for us in full by Sanjuro, a long-time Jotman reader.
Our translator, Sanjuro, shares his own thoughts about the interview:
Today a Thai court will continue hearings on the extradition of Viktor Bout, who is being charged with illegal arms trade by the American authorities. A special correspondent of the Kommersant, Olga Allenova took this interview from Mr. Bout at the Bangkok Central Prison.
It was not very difficult to see Mr Bout; according to the rules of the Bangkok Central Prison, anyone who is willing, may have a half-an-hour meeting with a prisoner. It’s only up to the prisoner if he or she is willing to have the appointment. However, local authorities were assuring me that Bout does not see journalists, especially on the eve of the very unpredictable extradition hearings.
Still, unexpectedly for me, Bout agreed to see me. I was invited to a crowded waiting hall, under the roof, right in the steaming hot jail yard. Every half-an-hour an attendant announces times for the meetings. Viktor Bout was brought into the meeting room after lunch. Wearing a blue t-shirt, looking smart and happy, he first thing warned that he didn’t believe Western media as they “misrepresented” him. The room was divided by a glass wall, with prisoners on one side and visitors on the other. Using electronic equipment, including cameras and dictaphones is prohibited, by I was allowed to take notes. We started the conversation.
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The American side alleges that in recent times you participated in an arms deal aimed to sell weapons illegally to the Colombian terrorist organization FARC. The prosecution’s report cites a DEA special agent as a witness, who allegedly sent his associates to you and persuaded you to do the deal. Are you familiar with the people who, according to the Americans, negotiated with you about this deal?
I know none of those people who, by the way, are not even called by their real names, only by codenames, and the circumstances that you are talking about, I only learned about them from the prosecution’s report. The whole thing is based on the principle: “odna babka skazala” (Translator: a Russian proverb, literally “one old lady said…” unverified information based on verbal accounts of untrustworthy people).
The case names some witnesses named SA-1, SA-2, SA-3 etc, with whom you allegedly had negotiations in Bucharest, Copenhagen…
This is some 1937 stuff. Only nicknames, no real names. And these mythical witnesses that nobody has seen, are supposed to be believed? And you know what is interesting? I have never been neither in Bucharest, nor on Curacao, nor in Copenhagen. Somebody, allegedly acting on my behalf, does some dealings, and that is enough to sign a warrant in my name. I can only applaud these people.
Do you mean Smulyan (Smulian?) who allegedly was acting on your behalf in those negotiations?
I don’t think it was Smulyan. There was one other person who allegedly was negotiating with Smulyan. And personally, I only had one case of dealings with Smulyan, it was about a sale of a few airplanes. Those were my assets remaining after the collapse of my airline. Smulyan said he had a customer who was interested in the purchase but could not decide where to meet.
And you chose Thailand to discuss this deal?
I came to Thailand on personal reasons, health and recreation. It was a coincidence that Smulyan too decided to come here. I didn’t arrange to meet anyone else.
You were arrested on your first day in Thailand. How did that happen?
I checked in, had some shower, went out to the lobby, saw Smulyan there and we had a talk. I went back to the room and the Americans broke in there. They searched the room, and as far as I could understand they were going to quietly take me out of the country. Like Smulyan. But then the Thai police intervened, they said “no, we’re taking him to the precinct”. They kept me there from 3 AM to 11 PM, because the Americans could not send a copy of the arrest warrant. That is, I was being held illegally. The Americans infringed in the Thai sovereignty. The whole operation was not even coordinated with the Thai law enforcement agencies. The Americans gave their false allegations to the Thai court which believed them and issued a warrant for my arrest. Even three warrants were issued, and two criminal cases were started against me - I guess just in case a single charge is dismissed within a day. And when the Thai realized they had been fooled, they closed the case, but by then the Americans had sent an extradition request.
Do you mean that first the Thai believed that you are an arms dealer, but then they refused to?
Then they sorted it out. It was complicated. The Americans did not immediately show all their cards. First everyone thought: Bout is meeting some mafia in Thailand, and the Americans are taking him right on spot. And when it became clear that there is no mafia at all and no other participants in the “negotiations”, apart from the American agents, then the case was closed.
This is a fabricated case, but even the fabrication is unprofessional because, if I am such a great arms dealer, then why cannot you provide one single proved fact, and resort to some provocations?
How come that you stayed behind in Thailand while Smulyan has left? Do you believe that he has agreed to collaborate with the American special services and has “sold” you?
Unfortunately I don’t know why he left. But I don’t think he sold or not sold anyone. I know him for many years and trust him. I think he’s just a victim like myself.
But the prosecution’s position is also based on his word?
Is that enough to charge a person with anything? Who knows what a person can say under pressure? The point is that the prosecution is based on the evidence of the American agent who refused to answer most of the questions in the last hearings. Which means they are offering a deal like this: We won’t tell you anything and won’t prove anything. Just give us Bout and we will deal with him ourselves.
What is your expectation on the extradition case?
We’ll see. You see, the Americans are behaving in this country like in their own back yard. How do you like this statement by the US Attorney General who was on a seminar of the Thai judges and who said that Bout’s extradition would be the best gift for his birth day? They just fabricated false charges and a fake warrant, just took advantage of the situation. I should not have come to Thailand.
If you are not guilty and did not participate in arms deals, then why the Americans are after you?
What happened in Thailand is a result of an old story. In 1990 I demobbed as a Lieutenant - I never was a Major as journalists like to write, and I didn’t serve in the GRU. I quit the military institute after returning from a service trip, after intensive training in Chinese. I went to work in the United Cooperatives of the USSR, under Tikhonov. I worked in the Air Transport Coordination Centre in those United Cooperatives - that’s how I actually came into aviation. During this one and a half year with the United Cooperatives I went on business trips to Brazil, Mozambique… That was an exciting time.
What kind of business trips?
I was a translator. I accompanied firm’s representatives on firm’s business. In the late 1991 I decided to leave and to start my own business. I decided to become an air shipping broker. By then I already had some connections in the industry. I would take airplanes, for instance, from the Magadan Airlines, and would lease them trough a Belgian firm, for work in Angola. That’s how I started the leasing business which was I was doing successfully till 1996. In 1993 I moved to Sharjah in the UAE where I started an airline which existed until 2001.
And what was the business of those your companies?
Mostly it was charter flights. In 1994 we transported French troops to Africa, when the Rwanda genocide began. We made more than 150 flights from the French base in Istriz to Zaire - from there they would proceed to Rwanda. We also moved the Belgian troops to Somalia and for 1.5 year we provided all transportation for the Belgian military personnel from Somali to Belgium. We also had contracts with Russian companies. We did more than 100 flights under a contract with “Roosvooruzheniye” (Translator: Russian state-owned arms trade company) and with the Angolan government. Also did some shipping from Romania to Angola, for the Angolan government, also flew from Bulgaria.
Did you ship weapons? Were those shipments legal?
Legal, of course. You see, if you arrest every taxi driver who gave a ride to some bad person, there won’t be any taxi drivers left in the streets. I am a shipper. I get an order, I get paid. I send a request, get an approval, instruct my crew, the crew comes in, loads the aircraft, gets the shipping papers, clears customs. All these tales about illegal flights are not supported with anything. I am sorry, everyone in the transport business ships weapons if it is not an illegal cargo, if the papers meet all regulations. Who cares what this hardware really is, if the papers are according to the law? You just do your job. It is very easy to create a lot of noise about weapons, but nobody is willing to really sort things out. They are all crying: “He shipped weapons, he broke sanctions”. What sanctions did I break? Where’s the evidence, facts? Where is the fact that on such and such date, an aircraft owned by Bout, brought such and such cargo illegally? Where are the documents, financial transactions? Till now, nobody has presented any data.
How did your business develop further?
In 1996 we brought 12 MIG jetfighters from Moscow to Malaysia. And I repeat, that was my professional activity as an air shipping broker, I was organizing air shipping. In the same period I started a small firm in Belgium, I had a small office at the airport in Ostende. And, as I already mentioned, I had a small company in the Emirates. My Ostende office consisted of only two persons and I rarely visited it. 1995 I decided to start my own airline, to purchase my own planes - and that was accomplished. That first company was registered in Liberia.
Because it’s convenient. Half of the sea ships in the world are registered in Liberia. That my Liberian company existed for only a year, then a civil war started and the then cabinet of ministers left. All the data on that company of mine can be verified. It is nonsense to say that I had 60 airplanes.
How many airplanes did you have?
In good times I had up to 21 aircraft including An-28 and helicopters.
And even after that business closed, were you still doing alright?
At that time a free economic zone was created at the Sharjah airport and Mr Robert Chichakli was appointed manager of that zone. We were good friends with him. We were one of the first customers of that free zone; we started the first enterprise to do maintenance of former Soviet-built equipment. I started repairing my aircraft there and other people’s as well. In 1996, because we had our own technical center, we were able to purchase additional aircraft, and we became second after Lufthansa by cargo turnover at that airport, we even got an award. We also worked for Lufthansa flying between Sharjah and Kathmandu under Lufthansa’s codename. That is to say, we had a perfectly normal business. In 1997 we started expanding, we had many contracts and customers. In 1997 we started an air shipping company in the northern part of South Africa, in Petersburg. There we rented a huge hangar remaining from a former military base. We had customers in Africa, mostly mining companies. There was a major vegetable market in the neighbourhood and we would deliver fresh produce to the mines, - at some stage we reached 200 tonne per day which was profitable. Most of the cargo went to Congo, Zaire, Angola; we regularly provided fresh produce, vegetables, frozen chickens, camel-birds. Naturally, we never limited ourselves with these - and being in Africa, we kept looking for opportunities. In 1997 we started the Central African Airline which within the first six months, for the first time in 30 years, opened regular local air transportation, which allowed the local population to move in a normal way. Roads are very bad there, and where people had to spend a week on travel, now they could do that in two hours. We had An-28, Yak-40, L-410 airplanes there, the company was working well. That company also had a branch in Angola. All these companies, in Belgium, in the Emirates, in Angola, allowed us to fully utilize our fleet.
What other assignments did you have, apart from passenger and food flights?
We had many orders. For instance, we had the lawful government of Afghanistan as our customer - before Taliban. We made many flights for them, mostly shipping fuel from Ashgabat. We had contracts with the Congolese government, shipped goods from Europe for them. They had their own Il-76, we did the maintenance and provided the crew. We had orders from Angola, Luanda governments. We actively worked with the Libyans, we provided airplanes to them, repaired some equipment. We were just an autonomous organization that could provide an aircraft or do maintenance. Or if someone bought an airplane, we could provide a crew. Like, for instance, the Libyans donated an airplane to Burkina Faso - they turned to us and we provided a crew.
What orders, for instance, you had from the Angolan government?
We did charter flights from Pyongyang to Luanda, we did flights from Kurgan (Translator: in Russia) to Luanda, from Poland, from Bucharest, from Burgos (Translator: in Spain) - for the Luanda government. We would sign contracts, they would pay. All flights were under the codename of the Angolan national airline. We did flights for Congo as well, during the elections campaign we shipped vehicles and equipment. We had good contacts with the Congolese leadership, especially with Bemba (Translator: Jean-Pierre Bemba, former VP of the DRC, arrested in 2008). He is a good friend. We spent a lot of time together; I would give him a helicopter and we often flew together. By the way, one day Belgian journalists were flying with us, Bemba invited them to fly with us to a province where Bemba was supposed to make peace between two tribes that were slaughtering each other. His mission went well and the peacemaking procedure took place; he fixed the relationship between the tribes. And the fact that he’s now arrested and is being charged with genocide is making me laugh. This man is a real patriot of his country. He would be the president of Congo by now, but he got his victory stolen in the elections, because he did not get well with the Americans. By the way, there were 3 assassination attempts on him after that. Then he left the country, but they arrested him in Brussels. Anyway, one of those journalists was not feeling well and we took him to a town on the border with Luanda, and then he wrote that he had met Bout, the arms dealer in Congo. He took a picture of me with an airplane on the background and some troops were boarding, but that wasn’t my plane.
What was so criminal in that photo?
Some troops were boarding, but it wasn’t my flight. I don’t even remember what troops and whose plane; didn’t pay attention until I saw that article. After that Bemba called those Belgian guys and asked “why did you write that?” They said, “Why not? It’s that Bout himself!” I rarely talk about this because I had a couple of bad experiences, you say something, but they don’t hear you. Everyone wants to see you as an arms dealer, a merchant of death.
So, you are saying that you were intentionally portrayed as a monster, while in reality you did nothing unlawful?
I was just doing my job. I wasn’t interested what I am shipping and for what. I got orders and processed everything legally. If there are any problems about the items, then why don’t they get those who ordered them and who supplied them? Nobody has any problem with senders and recipients; they are all just pointing at me. We did flights from Europe, from respectable locations. You understand what mechanisms are involved in exports of weapons and special equipment, especially in European countries.
I know very well that big countries help small ones…
And that Russia is helping Africa…
No. Currently Russia is not helping Africa.
Ok, not currently. But it seems that the Americans are so interested in you because of your activities in Africa. Don’t you think so? Maybe you possess some important information? Back then, intelligence agencies did not really work in Africa, and you were a rarity, had lots of information.
You know, I worked officially. You could always reach me on the satellite phone, I was available. Yes, we worked very well, we had 12 people in the company, but we worked better than 300-strong company. Yes, we made money; we had a good management team. We were the first. It is always good to come first in the market - then you can set the rules, and I never competed with anyone. I charged a high price, everyone knew that, but we also had many customers. But maybe you’re right, and it was then that I started having problems. I recall that some envoys started approaching me hinting that they would be pleased if I told them what was happening in this and that country. And offered various benefits if I shared information in time. I refused, it was not interesting.
That is, they were interested in particular governments and countries?
Yes, for instance, what’s the cargo on this aircraft? Or who is flying with the president of Congo?
That is, they wanted to recruit you?
Yes, because we were working with the Libyans and, excuse me, with some other countries that were of great interest to the Americans. And after I refused, some falsified UN investigations pop up, some expert Johan Peleman gets appointed. Who is that expert Johan Peleman? A peace institute opens in Antwerp, the centre for diamond trade, and there are only two employees in that institute: that man Peleman and his secretary. And then this gentleman, as an Africa expert, starts an investigation on me. And the fact that he had spent previous five years working as a trader for a Zaire diamond company is not mentioned. Then I realized that the UN had long become a petty sinecure where those in power appoint their cronies. And not necessarily professional ones. And here, a mythical panel of experts got a huge budget approved for itself, spent about 80 million dollars within 3 years, on traveling first class and living in five-star hotels - and not doing their job. They came to Sharjah, but did not meet me, they collected some rumours. It wasn’t a professional investigation. These people didn’t have an operative’s experience, they were neither professional policemen, nor lawyers. They lumped everything they found into one pile. They just could not comprehend how come I was operating in this country, and that country, and some other country. At some point they even wrote that not a single airplane in Central Africa can take off without my approval. Well, that was a complete idiocy.
Still, you must have some explanation for these persecutions. It cannot be explained as just a retribution for non-cooperation.
I already told you about Mr. Richard Chichakli. We’re good friends, he was helping me a lot. He left Sharjah for the US, started his own consulting firm in Dallas, and in 2005 he is arrested, all his property is confiscated, his accounts are closed, two truckloads of paperwork are confiscated from his office - and everyone’s yelling “the finance director of the Bout the-merchant-of-death empire is arrested, two truckloads of evidence are seized!” And at that moment the so-called foreign assets control office of the US Treasury started spreading the word that all the arrested assets of Chichakli were in fact mine, and that he is my proxy. But I never had any assets in the US.
And your US accounts that were closed did not exist either?
I did not have any US accounts! And therefore they could not be closed. And then, then they sell Chichakli’s property that was confiscated without an investigation and a court verdict, and the mythical US Constitution that protect ownership rights swallows that. For 3 years since then Chichakli has been trying to file a lawsuit, but no court accepts it. He is an active member of the Republican Party. He’s got a Bush photograph with his personal signature thanking him for his active support in the campaign. He is a veteran of the US armed forces, has a Purple Heart award. And this person, an American citizen, was simply taken and deprived of everything. It is fortunate that he managed to flee to Russia. So, it is possible that the provocation that they attempted here was their only way to bring me to the US and to prove their case against Chichakli. Because with the change of the US administration, the Chichakli case will be reopened, and it will be a very high-profile case, and I am sure he is going to win it. And that means serious trouble to some group of people. And that group of people did this provocation on me here. What they did with me here is just outrageous. But still doable, as our Prime Minister would say. (Translator: Bout uses a Russian idiom again: “what they did with me doesn’t go through the gate, but as our Prime Minister would say, it can be squeezed”. Bout is apparently refrerring to V. Putin as the Prime Minister). And generally, after Sept 11 the US democracy is turning into a fascist totalitarian regime. After Sept 11 there is a not-to-miss opportunity to scrap all those civil rights and liberties. And all their rhetoric about democracy is only words. I realized that long ago. In 1998 my South African company was closed on instructions from the Americans. They just came to me and said: “We won’t renew your visas; if you want to leave, leave now”. In 2001 they also closed my company in Sharjah; again, just same and said “Your business is closed, you have 24 hrs to leave, or else we will put you in jail”. Nobody cares about documentation, about evidence. The Russians are only coming to realize about the States, after Georgia. If the Americans have set their mind on something, they don’t care about anything. They are repeating the Goebbels method: if you repeat something many times, then everyone will believe.
Your lawyer believes your case is an important precedent hence so much noise about it. Is that why Gosduma (Translator: Russian parliament) is concerned about your plight?Gosduma is concerned because this is a political case. And a precedent as well. If this works with me, then it happens that any Russian citizen can be extradited by a US request? There are 38 people in the jail cell with me, 6 of them arrested on the US request. The Americans are behaving like: “We don’t have to prove he’s guilty, just give him to us, and we at home will prove he’s guilty”. It’s time for the Thais to realize that if they let themselves being manipulated like that, it’s going to be difficult for them to survive in the today’s world.
"I would not expect much different stance from Bout as he is apparently desperate not to be extradited to the US, at least under the current administration, and is also aiming to ignite some (anti-American) feelings in the Kommersant readership. I don't think he was exactly lying on the factual side of his business, rather, not telling the whole truth, but his conspiracy theories did not sound very convincing either. I was more concerned that the Kommersant interviewer seemed somewhat biaised towards Bout and on one occasion even suggested a whole new line of thought to him (the information sharing thing). I usually expect a more professional attitude from the Kommersant people."
You can read some of Sanjuro's most recent commentary concerning the situation in Russia here.