'Lord of War' arrives in US following extradition

Viktor Bout, the man at the centre of a long-standing war of words between US and Russia, finally arrives in NYC; Millions of North Koreans face food-shortages despite better harvest, says UN report; Serbia asks Interpol for help in the hunt for Ratko Mladic. All this and more in today's global security briefing.
Luke Heighton
17 November 2010

Alleged arms dealer Viktor Bout today arrived in the US following his extradition from Thailand. Bout was put on a plane bound for New York on Tuesday, where it is expected he will face charges of conspiracy to kill American citizens, supporting a terrorist organisation, and of illegally selling weapons in South America, the middle east and Africa. If convicted he faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Bout, a 43-year-old former Russian Air Force officer (who alongside the now deceased Oleg Orlov is credited as the inspiration behind the 2005 Hollywood film Lord of War), is widely thought to have played a crucial role in fuelling successive and ongoing conflicts in Angola, the DR Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Sudan. Bout was first captured by the United Nations in 2008, following his failure to comply with a series of sanctions intended to limit his arms-trading operations, though his alleged business interests were known about much earlier. There have been suggestions that at the time of his arrest in a Bangkok hotel, Bout was negotiating a deal to sell surface-to-air missiles to a group whom he believed to represent Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The men were subsequently revealed to have been US agents.

The decision by a local court to extradite Bout comes at the end of two-years of legal battles and repeated clashes between US, Thai and Russian authorities, the latter of whom issued a statement describing the move a “striking injustice” and have pledged to give “all necessary support to Victor Bout as a Russian citizen”.

Speaking to Russia Today, a news organisation widely believed to have close ties to the Kremlin, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov went on to complain: “Despite two rulings in Thailand’s criminal court, saying Victor Bout’s guilt was not proven, the Thai government has still decided to hand him over to the US. I consider this unprecedented political pressure on a legal process and on Thailand’s government”.

The suggestion that Bout is a pawn in the much larger political game being played out between Washington in Moscow was echoed by another commentator, the intelligence and arms trafficking expert Brian Johnson-Thomas, whom Russia Today quoted as saying “He is possibly a merchant of some death but he certainly is not the one that US media would call The Merchant of Death”. According the Thomas, “95% of [Bout’s] flights were ordinary commercial goods and he flew televisions… all sorts of things. So we are only talking about 5% of the cargo possibly being arms, and even flying arms is not itself illegal.” Today, however, that view stood in stark contrast those expressed by US Attorney General Eric Holder, who described Bout’s arrival on US soil as “a victory for law and order worldwide”.

In addition to his acknowledged service record, Bout has also faced suggestions, which he strenuously denies, of profiting from a close relationship with Russia’s FSB intelligence agency, following his work as a KGB agent. Whether this latest development will lead to such allegations being formally substantiated is, perhaps, a moot point. However, as at least one commentator has remarked, there seems little evidence to contradict the suggestion that Bout is a “unique creature”, and a direct beneficiary of the chaotic fallout which accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He describes himself as a “dynamic, charismatic, spontaneous, well-dressed, well-spoken, and highly energetic person [...] a born salesman with undying love for aviation and eternal drive to succeed”. That ‘success’ the US alleges, is understood to have netted Bout a personal fortune estimated at approximately US$6 billion. Both he and his brother, Sergei, a key figure in Viktor’s business empire, argue that he in fact an innocent businessman running a legitimate air cargo company.

Interpol role in hunt for Mladic provokes as many questions as answers

Serbia has asked for Interpol’s help in tracking down Ratko Mladic, who has been on the run since 1995, and has been indicted by the UN for war crimes and other crimes against humanity committed during the Bosnian civil war. Most notoriously, Mladic is alleged to have played a key role in the massacre of 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica during the summer of 1995. During a conversation between Interpol’s secretary general, Ronald Noble, and Ivica Dacic, Serbia’s interior minister, at the organisation’s Lyon headquarters on Tuesday, it was agreed that Interpol would step up its efforts to track down all those accused of war crimes in committed in former Yugoslavia. Dacic also agreed in future to share criminal assets seized in the course of such investigations with Interpol.

Speaking during a visit to Belgrade the day before, UN war crimes prosecutor Serge Brammertz reiterated his belief that Mladic was still hiding in Serbia, though admitted it was possible he might yet be found outside the country. At the same time, Brammertz reminded Serbia of what the EU regards as its obligation to make the utmost effort in tracking down Mladic. There has been a feeling for some time among many member states that Serb authorities have not properly addressed their responsibilities in this regard, and have been dragging their feet over a matter that is seen as key to the country’s hopes of successful entry into the European Union. The timing of this latest announcement is therefore politically significant, though it remains to be seen whether it represents more than a tacit acknowledgement of the justification behind the criticisms levelled at Serbia, or a partial devolvement of the Serb government’s duty to arrest Mladic, who has managed to evade capture despite reports of recent sightings at two Serbia tourist resorts and a US$13.8m bounty on his head.

So far neither Serbia nor Russia has commented on the claim – made by an ex-general and former close aide to Mladic – that Mladic is currently in hiding in Russia, as published in a Belgrade newspaper last week.

Harsh weather and inadequate resources lead to renewed fears of famine in DPRK

Nearly five million North Koreans face food shortages due to low stocks, poor quality maize supplies, inadequate drying facilities and contamination. The crisis has been compounded by problems with storage facilities for potatoes and a distribution scarcely able to meet the needs of the people. This is despite an improvement in this summer’s harvest over the last, reports a joint Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)/World Food Programme (WFP) assessment. The DPRK will have to make further increases on the 325,000 tonnes of commercially imported grain it distributes, in addition to the 305,000 tonnes it receives annually in international food relief, in order to avert mass famine. Children, pregnant women, nursing mothers, the elderly and those living in regions where food insecurity is already greatest are at most risk of experiencing severe malnutrition.

The assessment is based on a survey carried out over an area accounting for approximately 90% of North Korea’s grain producers, covering 7 out of 10 provinces. Unfortunately, according to the FAO and WFP, improvements in these areas to agricultural inputs such as the availability of electricity, diesel fuel, farm machinery, fertilisers and pesticides have not been able to match the deleterious effects of the intense rainstorms and severe flooding which have blighted North Korea’s agricultural production over the past twelve months. Joyce Luma, speaking on behalf of the WFP’s Food Security Analysis Unit, described the cereal rations currently available through the government’s 2010/2011 distribution programme amounted to only half the daily food requirements. “A small shock in the future could trigger a severe negative impact and will be difficult to contain if these chronic deficits are not effectively managed”, she said.

In addition to making major improvements to storage and processing facilities, the report also recommended that production of high-protein legumes such as soy (already a major staple), should increase, the development of a national policy to provide greater support to household gardens, and – in an attempt both to provide a more diverse diet and reduce reliance on agriculture – a sizeable appreciation in the number of  areas dedicated to farming fish.

President of Iraq refuses ratify execution of former deputy prime minister

The president of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, has today announced his intention not to sign an order authorising the execution of the former deputy prime minister to Saddam Hussein, Tariq Aziz. Aziz, 74, was sentenced to death by an Iraqi court last month, after he was found guilty of the persecution of rival Shia Muslim groups during his time in office. At the time of his sentencing a spokesman for the Iraqi high tribunal referred to Judge Mohammed Abdul-Sahid having concluded that “the charge of elimination of religious parties [is] classified as crimes [sic] against humanity”, and that he had therefore “issued the death sentence on Tariq Aziz and four others for committing crimes against humanity”. He had already been convicted of involvement in the forcible displacement of Iraq’s Kurdish minority in the north, and of the execution, prior to the invasion of and occupation of Iraq, of dozens of merchants accused of profiteering. 

Aziz’s lawyer, Badee Aref, described the verdict as not only "unreasonable, irrational and wrong" from a legal perspective, but as “invalid” from an ethical perspective also, before stating: "I don't recognise this court because it sentenced Saddam Hussein to death and all the decisions it took are void because they are based on murder and assassination".

This is not the first time the president has taken such a position. Saddam Hussein was hanged in 2006, yet on that occasion too Talabani declined to sign the order, which was instead countersigned by two of his deputies in accordance with Iraq’s post-war constitution. At present, however, no such deputies exist, Talabani having only been re-appointed to the role a matter of weeks ago.

The EU, the Vatican and Russia have already called on the Iraqi government to commute the death sentence handed down to Aziz on humanitarian grounds. However, explaining his position, Talabani said he had some sympathy with Aziz, both as a socialist himself, because of Aziz’s age (Talabani is 70), and – perhaps most significantly given that Iraq’s Christian population has made the headlines in recent weeks after becoming the target of repeated violence and assaults – because Aziz is a Christian. Aziz, whom it has been reported retains a modicum of support amongst some Iraqis, is also understood to be seriously ill.

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