NEW YORK — A former Soviet military officer dubbed the "Merchant of Death" for allegedly selling an arsenal of weapons that would be "the envy of some small countries" was in the United States on Wednesday to face justice, a prosecutor announced, refusing to address the possibility that the extradition had chilled U.S.-Russian relations.
At a news conference, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara repeatedly responded to questions about the relations between the countries by saying Viktor Bout was brought to the United States after prosecutors successfully sought an indictment and an extradition based on evidence collected during a long-running Drug Enforcement Administration probe.
"The so-called Merchant of Death is now a federal inmate," Bharara said after Bout was flown from Thailand to a suburban New York airport on Tuesday to face charges that he offered to sell millions of dollars of weapons to a terrorist group that wanted to kill Americans. "No one should ever think he can plot to kill Americans with impunity."
He praised the DEA for "courageous and groundbreaking work," along with the agency's partners in Curacao, Copenhagen and Bucharest.
The Russian Foreign Ministry had said Thailand's decision to extradite him was "unlawful," purely political and resulted from U.S. pressure. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in remarks broadcast on Russian television Tuesday that the Thai government's decision was "an example of glaring injustice."
Messages seeking comment left Wednesday with the Russian Mission to the United Nations and the Russian Embassy in Washington were not immediately returned.
For several months, U.S. and Russian officials had fought for control of Bout, flexing muscles in a manner that seemed to threaten cooperation on arms control, nuclear weapons curbs and the war in Afghanistan. Department of State spokesman P.J. Crowley has acknowledged possible "ripples" in relations with Moscow but said any concerns could be managed.
"I have no reaction," Bharara said to the controversy, saying his office "did what we always do" by seeking to prosecute someone after compiling proof of a crime.
Bout, 43, wearing a brown shirt and black sweat pants, pleaded not guilty during an 8-minute initial appearance in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, where his court-appointed attorney, Sabrina Shroff, said he consented to being held without bail until his next court appearance, scheduled for Jan. 10. She declined to comment outside court.
Bout, sporting his customary thick mustache, spoke politely as he answered several routine questions from Judge Shira A. Scheindlin.
At one point, Bout was asked if a financial affidavit he signed was accurate. He replied, "Yes, I swear," through an interpreter, standing and raising his hand as if swearing to tell the truth.
The only reference to Russia came when a prosecutor, Anjan Sahni, told the judge that the U.S. notified the Russian Consulate earlier Wednesday of Bout's arrest by U.S. authorities.
Seated in the courtroom were some federal agents who accompanied Bout on his 21-hour flight to the United States.
Bout discussed politics and economics during the trip, according to a law enforcement official who was on the plane. The person, who talked to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, was not authorized to speak publicly.
Bout said he was a vegetarian, ate salad, drank a lot of water, slept and listened to classical music, the official said.
Thomas Harrigan, DEA chief of operations, told The Associated Press that the arrest, extradition and prosecution of Bout were "a victory for us all."
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