In NY, ex-Soviet officer claims US threatened him

AP News
Posted: Apr 19, 2011 2:26 PM
In NY, ex-Soviet officer claims US threatened him

A former Soviet military officer charged with trying to sell weapons to a terrorist group says U.S. agents warned he could face hunger, disease and rape in Thailand jails if he did not talk to them, according to court papers filed by lawyers seeking to have the case against him dismissed.

Viktor Bout made the claim in a court document filed Monday in federal court in Manhattan. His lawyers say it was unconstitutional to bring the charges in the U.S., a place Bout had never visited.

The Russian government has complained that Bout's extradition last year from Thailand was unlawful and political. He has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy and other charges that carry penalties including a mandatory minimum 25 years in prison. His trial is set for Oct. 11.

Authorities say Bout has supplied weapons that fueled civil wars in South America, the Middle East and Africa, with clients ranging from Liberia's Charles Taylor and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to the Taliban government that once ran Afghanistan. He was an inspiration for an arms dealer character played by Nicolas Cage in the 2005 film "Lord of War."

Bout said in an affidavit that between 15 and 20 police officers with guns drawn arrested him in March 2008 at a Bangkok hotel and escorted him to his room, where he was strip-searched and then taken to police headquarters by car.

He said he was met at police headquarters by 40 to 50 members of the media and was then told by the Thai deputy police chief that U.S. agents wanted to speak to him.

"I told him that I didn't want to speak to the Americans. I also asked for an attorney and to see a representative of the Russian Embassy. My request was not granted," he said.

He said he was taken about an hour after his arrest to a room where he was met by up to seven U.S. agents who advised him of his rights.

Asked by the head agent to speak to them, Bout recalled saying he was "in a bad state of mind and would need some time" before deciding whether to speak. He added that he was handcuffed during his discussion with the Americans.

It was at this point, he said, that he was warned that this might be his last opportunity to speak with them and, without cooperation, he would be left in Thai custody.

"I was told that I would not be able to survive in a Thai jail and that heat, hunger, disease and rape were things that I had to deal with if I was left there. I was told that I was facing a life sentence and might die in a Thai jail if I didn't agree to cooperate and go back to the United States with them," he said.

He said he was placed "under tremendous psychological pressure" to speak with them about everything he knew and was warned it was his only chance to avoid jail in Thailand.

Bout said he spoke a little with the agents before saying he didn't know why he should be talking to them if what he said could be used in court against him. After they made additional threats to leave him in Thai custody, he made a few other statements before telling them he wanted a lawyer, he said.

He said the interview then ended after about 40 minutes.

"I believe that any statements I may have given were not the product of my voluntary free will, but were rather induced by psychological pressure and threats at a time when I was very fearful and vulnerable," Bout said.

Bout's lawyers said his statements should be suppressed because his constitutional rights to due process were violated.

Charges against Bout accuse him of conspiring to provide the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, also known as FARC, in Colombia, South America, with weapons that would be used to kill U.S. citizens, officers and employees. The charges also allege he conspired to provide anti-aircraft missiles that would enable FARC, classified by Washington as a narco-terrorist group, to attack U.S. aircraft in Colombia and that he conspired to provide FARC with weapons knowing they would engage in terrorist activities and terrorism against U.S. interests. Bout has pleaded not guilty.

Lawyers for Bout say U.S. authorities went too far when they arranged a sting operation in which undercover operatives would pose as members of FARC, expressing hostility toward the United States and the desire to kill American pilots. Prosecutors have said Bout expressed sympathy for their fight.

The defense lawyers said Bout's statements "were entirely orchestrated by the undercover operatives," violating his right to due process.

The lawyers also asked that what they called "inflammatory and prejudicial" words be stricken from the indictment, including a reference to Bout as the "Merchant of Death."

When Bout was first extradited, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara told a news conference: "The so-called Merchant of Death is now a federal inmate."

Also attached to the defense submission Monday was a Drug Enforcement Administration document recounting the March 2008 interview with federal agents.

It said Bout said in his statements to agents that a book about him titled "Merchant of Death" was untrue. It also quoted Bout as saying he did not believe that the undercover operatives he had spoken with truly represented the FARC and did not believe the arms deal would go through.

Edeli Rivera, a spokeswoman for Bharara, said the government had not comment in response to the papers filed by the defense.