HAVANA TIMES — The controversial case of North Korea’s Chong Chon Gang vessel came to its conclusion before the courts this Friday when a Panamanian judge absolved the three North Korean crew members accused of crimes against collective security and ordered the return of the 10 thousand tons of sugar confiscated by the country’s authorities.
The judge of the Penal Proceedings Court for the Colon District, Carlos Villarreal, also ruled to absolve the 32 crew members of the North Korean vessel who had been released on January 30 and authorized them to leave for Cuba at the beginning of February.
“The court ruled that the crew members could not be held responsible for any crime, as these were performing their duties and executing and obeying orders from the North Korean State, as the management of the vessel is of a semi-public nature,” stated a communiqué issued after Ruling No. 23 was handed down.
Immediate Release of Crew Members
Judge Villarreal ordered the immediate release of Captain Ri Yong II, First Officer Hong Yong Hyon and political officer Kim Yong Gol. The crew members have been authorized to leave Panama.
“Judge Villarreal’s decision was based on the fact the incident is of an international nature and beyond Panamanian jurisdiction. The Panamanian State, a member of the United Nations, was duty-bound to call on the Security Council so as to have it reach its conclusions and considerations in connection with the findings,” the communiqué stated.
The court ruling also ordered the retention of “all armaments confiscated from the Chong Chon Gang vessel, all of which have been duly inventoried, as no proof of legitimate ownership was presented.” The weapons are to be placed at the disposal of the Panamanian Treasury.
This court ruling closes the book – at least from the point of view of Panamanian justice – on a controversial case of arms contraband that involved the Cuban government and a report by a special UN panel.
The Chong Chon Gang was detained on July 10, 2013 while trying to cross the Panama canal with a 240-ton cargo of Cuban weapons and munitions, hidden among 200 thousand sacks of sugar. Two Volga and Pechora anti-aircraft missile systems, nine disassembled rockets, two MIG-21s and 15 plane engines, described by the Cuban government as “obsolete armaments”, were among the materials found.
Lies and Violations
Following its detention and exhaustive inspection, the ship received permission to leave Panama in mid-February, but, this past May, it returned and crossed the Canal, headed for North Korea, following a stopover in Havana.
At the beginning of the year, a UN panel of experts concluded that Cuba lied and violated the weapons embargo on North Korea, in effect since 2006, participating in covert operations to load the Chong Chon Gang with the armaments. UN sanctions are still pending.
This past June 4th, the three North Korean officials were accused of actions against collective security at a court hearing. Attorney for the defense Julio Berrios asked for expedited proceedings, a motion approved by Judge Villarreal. The court had until July 4th to hand down a ruling.
The case of the North Korean vessel led to serious tensions between the governments of Cuba and Panama, prompting attacks leveled at President Ricardo Martinelli for his direct involvement in the incident.
Martinelli will step down on July 1. In recent days, Cuba’s official media published reports accusing the Panamanian president of compromising his country’s finances.