Russia has no military secrets to hide in the case of suspected arms dealer Viktor Bout and wants to ensure he has a fair trial in a US court, senior officials said on Thursday.
In a softening of Moscow’s tone in a case that risks harming improved but still fragile relations with Washington, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov backtracked from previous heavy criticism of Bout’s extradition from Thailand to the US.
“We will not act as Bout’s advocates and do not claim that he did not commit any illegal offences. That we do not know, and no one will know, until justice is done,” Lavrov was quoted as saying by official RIA Novosti news agency.
“We want to see justice prevail, nothing more,” he said.
The remarks contrasted strongly with Lavrov’s comments earlier in the week, when he said Russia would support Bout “by all means” and termed his extradition to the US as “extreme injustice.”
Earlier Thursday, President Dmitry Medvedev’s top foreign policy aide said Moscow wanted to see a thorough investigation into the alleged arms dealer.
“We have nothing to hide, no-one sees any military secrets or secrets of some other nature here,” Sergei Prikhodko said on a visit by Medvedev to Azerbaijan.
“We are interested that the investigation into this comrade is completed and he should answer the questions that US justice has for him,” he said in televised remarks.
Thai authorities this week extradited Bout to the United States, after he had been held since March 2008 following a sting operation in Bangkok involving undercover US agents posing as Colombian FARC rebels
On Wednesday, the former Soviet air force pilot pleaded not guilty to terrorism charges in a New York federal court.
Bout will receive all the necessary consular support, Prikhodko said, but stressed this was simply the right of all Russian citizens arrested abroad.
“Many comrades — both tourists and entrepreneurs who also violate law — end up in a difficult situation and regardless of this we are guided by the universal rules of rendering assistance to the Russian citizens,” Russian news agencies quoted Prikhodko as saying.
“However that does not mean a justification” of all Russians arrested abroad, Prikhodko was quoted as saying.
“We have always said and will say that drug dealers, human traffickers, illegal arms dealers — these are all part of the same chain — these people deserve unconditional condemnation.”
Russia’s consul general in New York, Andrei Yushmanov, said earlier in the day the United States tried to pressure Bout into confessing to crimes he had not committed.
“According to Viktor Bout, some pressure was put on him during his transfer,” RIA Novosti quoted Yushmanov as saying.
“He said that they tried to convince him to confess to things that he has not done, promising some general nice things in return. Viktor Bout rejected these attempts.”
Bout’s trial in the United States risks casting a shadow over the already fragile bilateral ties, analysts say.
The fate of a landmark nuclear treaty, the backbone of the much-touted “reset” championed by US President Barack Obama and Medvedev this year, is currently unclear following November 2 elections in the US in which Republicans routed Democrats.
A major spy scandal this summer dealt another blow to the rapidly improving ties when US authorities had detained 10 “deep-cover” suspects, accused of infiltrating policymaking for the Kremlin.
Russia first angrily hit back at US accusations, warning the spat could damage efforts to improve relations, but quickly softened down its rhetoric and sought to settle the matter in record time.