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Panama judge acquits North Koreans detained over arms shipment

Panama judge acquits North Koreans detained over arms shipment

A judge acquitted and ordered the immediate release of three North Koreans detained in Panama since 2013, when they tried to transit the Panama Canal with undeclared weapons aboard the vessel North Korean-flagged Chong Chon Gang.

Judge Carlos Villarreal acquitted the master of the vessels Ri Yong Il and two officers and ordered their immediate release. The court in Colon ruled that the weapons and other equipment should be turned over to Panamanian authorities.

The decision was based on the fact that "the issue is of international and escaped the Panamanian jurisdiction” and whether the vessel violated a United Nations arms embargo against North Korea was not a matter for Panama to decide. Panama was only entitled to "convene the Security Council (UN) to issue its findings and considerations relative to the weapons”. In addition, the crew "could not be attributed responsibility" because "in the exercise of their functions executed and obeyed the North Korean state orders," it adds.

The ship's other 32 seafarers were allowed to sail the vessel back to North Korea in February after the owner paid a $700,000 fine to the Panama Canal Authority.

The freighter Chong Chon Gang was arrested with 35 crew on July 10, 2013 while trying to sail the Panama Canal and was boarded on suspicion of carrying drugs, but  authorities discovered the weaponry, including aircraft parts Mig-21, missile and military vehicles in containers hidden under 200,018 bags of sugar. The 35 crew members were arrested, but only the captain Ri Yong Il, the first officer Hong Yong Hyon and Kim Yong Gol political commissar were detained on charges of international trafficking in arms and threatening collective security.

On 15 February, the 32-member crew was released without charge and returned with the ship to Cuba. After nine months of ordeal the Chong Chon Gang transited again the Panama Canal May 3rd en route to North Korea with her seafarers released, and a new captain and new officers.

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