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Panama orders release of crew of N. Korean ship

Thursday - 1/30/2014, 9:00pm  ET

JUAN ZAMORANO
Associated Press

PANAMA CITY (AP) -- Panama's judicial authorities have ordered the release of 32 of 35 crew members of a North Korean ship detained in July for carrying hidden arms from Cuba and they were working Thursday on the paperwork needed to leave.

Prosecutor Nahaniel Murgas said the captain and two other crew members would remain to face arms trafficking charges.

He said a search of the ship turned up documents showing "that the ship's captain, first officer and political officer had been given instructions about what to do if the illegal shipment was detected."

"Together with that were the statements by the rest of the crew, who said they were employees on the vessel, but not responsible" for the shipment, Murgas said. "It was based on that we decided to free the other 32."

Panama's top prosecutor, Ana Belfon, said the 32 crew members had been turned over to immigration officials, who would decide whether to repatriate them or deport them.

Belfon said she will make sure prosecution of the captain and two other crew members takes place as soon as possible. A conviction on the charge against them carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison.

A lawyer representing the North Koreans, Julio Berrios, said all the crew members should be let go without charge.

"None of these people had anything to do with the war weapons," he said. "Not one crew member in the ship knew what was inside the containers. They were simply picking up a load."

The cargo ship Chong Chon Gang was found to be carrying Cuban fighter jets and missiles. The owners agreed to pay a $670,000 fine this month to release the ship.

The ship was headed from Cuba to North Korea when it was stopped in the Panama Canal on July 15 based on intelligence that it might have been carrying drugs.

The Cuban military equipment was found beneath sacks of sugar. Panama has not released the 10,000 tons of sugar or the arms.

After the seizure, Cuba said the cargo included "obsolete defensive weapons" including two MiG-21 fighter jets and 15 motors, nine missiles in parts, and two anti-aircraft systems that were being shipped to North Korea "to be repaired and returned."

A preliminary report by U.N. experts determined the seized ship violated U.N. sanctions against North Korea.


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