A judge agreed Wednesday to suppress statements an ex-Soviet officer dubbed the Merchant of Death made to U.S. investigators before he was transferred from Thailand to New York last year to face charges he sold arms to terrorists.
U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled that statements Viktor Bout made to investigators were not made voluntarily, particularly because he was told when he asked if he could delay speaking to them for a day that it would not be possible.
"I find that this deceptive response by the agents materially induced Bout to make statements," the judge wrote, finding in several instances that statements by Bout were more credible than those of U.S. investigators.
Federal prosecutors "respectfully" disagreed with the judge's opinion and planned to request that it be reconsidered, spokeswoman Ellen Davis said.
Bout, blamed for fueling deadly Third World conflicts over the last decade, is facing an October trial on charges stemming from a sting operation in which U.S. operatives met him while posing as anti-American rebels. He was arrested after a March 2008 meeting at the Sofitel hotel in Bangkok that was monitored by the Drug Enforcement Administration. He maintains he's a legitimate businessman and has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy charges that carry a possible term of life in prison.
After the 2008 meeting, 15 to 20 police officers, some with weapons drawn, arrested Bout, performed a strip search and searched his hotel room. He was taken to police headquarters, where he passed 40 to 50 members of the media as he entered the building. When a Thai police official told him Americans wanted to speak with him, he said he would instead like to meet with an attorney and see a representative of the Russian Embassy, the judge wrote.
Bout's requests were denied and he was taken before U.S. investigators for a 20-minute interview during which he advised the agents several times that he was not in a very good state of mind and needed more time before he could speak with them, the judge said, citing Bout's affidavit.
Bout has said that DEA agents told him he would be subject to "heat, hunger, disease and rape" in a Thai jail where he might die if he did not cooperate with them and go to the United States.
At a May hearing, an agent disputed the claim, saying that Bout was never told he would not be able to survive in a Thai jail but that he was warned that Thai jail conditions were not particularly pleasant.
On several points, the judge said she was more inclined to believe the claims by Bout than the recollections of the agents.
She said she did not believe agents were unaware that Bout had asked to see an attorney and to speak to a representative of the Russian Embassy and that the Thai police had denied the requests.
And she was critical of the agents for telling Bout he could not delay speaking to them for a day.
"It is likely they knew that they would have been permitted to see Bout the next day if they had made that request of the Thai police," she said.
She also said she found that the agents weren't credible when they denied insinuating that Bout might return to the United States with them immediately if he cooperated with them and waived extradition and when they denied telling him he would face hardships in Thai jails where he would be abandoned if he didn't cooperate with them. She said Bout's version of the interview was more credible than that of two agents who testified.