PANAMA CITY – A court in Panama jailed two North Koreans for 12 years for trying to smuggle Cuban weapons through the Panama Canal in an incident which raised international suspicions, their attorney said Sunday.
Their convictions came as something of a surprise since a lower court had let the men off after their North Korean cargo ship was found to be carrying Cuban weapons including surface-to-air missile systems and launchers when it was stopped in the Panama Canal in July 2013.
“Panama’s Second Circuit Court first revoked that ruling and then sentenced the ship’s captain and co-pilot to 12 years in prison,” their attorney Julio Berrios told AFP Sunday.
Captain Ri Yong-Il and first mate Hong Yong-Hyon were convicted of arms trafficking over the undeclared cache, including two Soviet-era MiG-21 aircraft, air defense systems, missiles and command and control vehicles.
The cargo on the vessel, the Chong Chon Gang, was hidden under 200,000 bags of sugar and had been destined for North Korea, in violation of strict sanctions.
Cuba had argued that the weapons were “obsolete” arms which the communist island had sent to Pyongyang for repair. But the find raised concerns about Cuba’s military cooperation with North Korea.
“This turnabout needs no legal analysis. It stems from international pressure, and as such violates both national law and international law,” Berrios said.
“Cuba has said that those weapons belonged to it and that they had been sent to North Korea to be repaired. And if Cuba says they were its weapons, it makes no sense to say the captain and copilot possessed these weapons of war.”
The rest of the crew of more than 30 on the Chong Chon Gang were acquitted earlier.