A Panamanian court on Sunday handed down 12-year jail sentences to two crewmen of the Chong Chon Gang, the North Korean vessel caught smuggling weapons through the Panama Canal in 2013.
The ships’ captain and first mate were given the sentences in what appeared to be a surprise reversal of an earlier acquittal from a lower court.
Reports at the time indicated the crewmen had already left Panama, bound for Cuba.
“Panama’s Second Circuit Court first revoked that ruling and then sentenced the ship’s captain and co-pilot to 12 years in prison,” the North Korean crewmen’s attorney Julio Berrios told AFP on Sunday.
“This turnabout needs no legal analysis. It stems from international pressure, and as such violates both national law and international law,” Berrios added.
Captain Ri Yong-Il and first mate Hong Yong-Hyon were convicted for their role in smuggling weapons and munitions through the canal. Disassembled MiG 21 fighter jets and Soviet-era weapons systems were also part of the haul.
The North Korean ship and its management company Ocean Maritime Management (OMM) have since been sanctioned by the UN and U.S. Department of Treasury.
The ship was transporting the weapons to North Korea from Cuba, who claimed the military equipment was heading to the DPRK for refurbishment.
“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,” Berrios said.
The other 30 crewmembers were released, along with the vessel itself. According to the NK News ship tracker, the sanction vessel was last seen on terrestrial tracking systems in November last year, near Japanese waters.
Prior to that, the vessel appeared to be shipping coal between the DPRK and China.
According to the Equasis maritime database, the vessel changed name and management companies in October last year. The ship is now called the Tung Hong San and is owned and operated by the Pyongyang based Tung Hong San shipping.
Renaming ships and assigning them to new companies is widely considered to be a way of evading sanctions.
The vessel is not the only OMM ship to find itself in trouble with the authorities. The Mu Du Bong has been held by the Mexican government for nearly a year, after running aground near the country’s east coast.
Picture: Marine Traffic
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Featured Image: North and South Korean navies exchange fire by Eric Lafforgue on 2009-05-17 05:24:11